The space where the argument should be

Battles of ideas will have to be won on Earth to make people feel positive about going to Mars.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

If President George W Bush was angling for a ‘Kennedy moment’ when he announced America’s intention to send man back to the moon by 2020 and to Mars by 2030, he’s had a rude awakening. The Boston Globe denounced his stargazing as ‘an attempt to fill in the “vision thing” blank on [his] to-do list’. Many reports point out that this president, like his daddy, has conveniently ‘rediscovered space at the start of an election year’. One commentator joked that the mission to Mars is probably All About The Oil. ‘This is one small step for man, one giant leap for the drilling rights of Exxon….’ (1)

For the past 40 years, our attitudes to space have reflected how we view ourselves on Earth. In more confident, self-assured times, space was seen as a frontier to be conquered, and the moon landing of 1969 as a high point of human achievement; today space is seen as scary and risky, and American astronauts as the potential polluters of the universe. But this relationship between man and the solar system doesn’t work the other way around; you cannot bolster humanity’s view of itself by looking to the stars. Bush is no doubt talking about Mars as a way of avoiding problems closer to Earth – but, as the reaction to his plan shows, vision in space is a poor substitute for vision at home.

You don’t have to be a cynical Bush-basher to see that Bush’s desire to renew the US space programme is motivated by Earthly concerns – it is true that since Kennedy, most American presidents have talked about space in the run-up to elections; and as one report points out, Bush’s promise of $1billion to NASA over a five-year period is a measly sum when you consider that going to Mars would likely cost about $600billion (2). But the widespread negative response to Bush’s space plans is motivated by something other than a political critique of the Bush administration. It suggests we have a pretty low view of Earthlings today, of our motives and capabilities and our place in the universe.

Some commentators have raised the spectre of man polluting the moon and Mars. One suggests that instead of polluting other planets, perhaps we could spend Bush’s billion ‘on repairing the environmental damage we have caused on Earth’. Quite how man could pollute Mars any more than it already is – with hostile weather conditions and gases that make life unviable – remains unclear. Even the positive case for returning to the moon made by one NASA spokesmen was based on the idea that we are destroying Earth: ‘Just think, we could move all our polluting factories there to help protect the environment here.’ (3) This pollution-talk points to a degraded view of humans, who are accused of arrogantly attempting to dominate their environment rather than respecting it – a sentiment that doesn’t sit well with notions of colonising the universe.

Others have suggested that going to Mars, and even going back to the moon (where man hasn’t set foot since 1972), is to take an unjustifiable risk; it is ‘a noble idea but too risky’, according to one report (4). Space, far from being seen as something to be explored and perhaps developed by humans, is seen as a threat to our very existence. USA Today claims that ‘our greatest long-term threat is…from natural forces such as solar flares and falling asteroids’, so perhaps we should spend the money on ‘technological means of averting or lessening the dangers’ (5).

Society is increasingly uncomfortable with taking risks, with anything that smacks of uncertainty. In our cautious, risk-averse age, talk about conquering the stars leads to widespread speculation about whether it’s worth it – with many questioning why we would go on a six-month journey 35million miles to Mars (the closest that Mars gets to Earth during its orbit of the Sun) when there is no way of telling what might happen. If Columbus had applied this safety-first principle to boldly going, maybe America wouldn’t exist in the first place. Exploration, discovery and heading into uncharted waters (or space) is always a risky business; but the alternative is to stay at home and do something more boring instead, to stare at the skies and wonder what might fall down upon us.

In a discussion forum on the website of the Washington Post, one correspondent even hinted that going back to space might heighten the threat of terrorism on Earth, accusing Bush of embracing ‘science and reason’ only because they are ‘the mortal enemies of religious fundamentalists’ (6). Perhaps the West should consult Osama bin Laden on all of its scientific and technological plans, to double check that he doesn’t disapprove.

One of the most widespread responses to Bush’s space plans is that the billion (measly as it is) should be spent on better things on Earth. We should use it to rebuild Iraq, to feed the poor of Africa; one commentator has claimed that exploring space is a waste of cash, which should be spent on something like ‘preserving the disappearing gorillas and chimpanzees of Africa’ (7). Of course the people of Africa need development and Iraq needs rebuilding, and humanity easily has the capability to feed, clothe and house everyone in the world many times over. But behind these heartstring-tugging demands for space money to go to ‘worthier’ causes, there lurks a deeper hostility to development and exploration for their own sakes – to the idea that conquering new territory is of a deeper intellectual (as well as practical) benefit to mankind.

The responses to Bush’s proposals reveal a limited view of humanity – we seem to see ourselves as polluters rather than developers; as fragile creatures at risk from falling asteroids rather than history-making explorers; as a people with far too many practical problems on Earth to have time to think about the moon or Mars. In short, we should know our place in the universe, and stick to it.

In this fearful and cynical climate, talk about space only brings our self-doubt and loathing to the fore rather than doing anything to tackle it. Of course we should go back to the moon and Mars, colonise them both, and then venture further – but there are battles of ideas to be fought and won on Earth if people are going to see those as positive, or even realistic, goals.

Read on:

‘The future was cancelled’, by Sandy Starr

The end of the space race?, by Sandy Starr

(1) Take me off this planet, John O’Farrell, Guardian, 16 January 2004

(2) Mars: what’s $600billion between friends?, William Baude, Chicago Maroon, 13 January 2004

(3) Bradbury excited by Mars effort, Christine McGourty, BBC News, 16 January 2004

(4) Mars? Bring the deficit down-to-Earth first, group says, Susan Jones, CNS News, 15 January 2004

(5) Think outside moon-Mars box: maybe visit asteroid?, James Oberg, USA Today, 13 January 2004

(6) Bush space plans, John Gibbons, Washington Post, 15 January 2004

(7) See Is the ‘right stuff’ wrong?, Brendan O’Neill, Christian Science Monitor, 5 February 2003

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Topics Politics


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