However, I do know the reason—or at least one reason—why the public haven’t been inspired and excited by Bush’s proposals. It’s simple: they’re too open-ended, too vague. Without Bush setting an actual date for the first manned mission to Mars, the new initiative isn’t going to embed itself in people’s psyche like Apollo did. People need schedules, dates, something to aim for. Politicians want paybacks now, before the next election, not in a half-century’s time. They want to know there’ll be a great photo opportunity for them in return for supporting any Grand Plan. The public want something to look forward to, a date to write on their mental calendars, an Event; something in their future that they can see approaching and get excited about.
No offense to my American friends out there, but I think this is an even bigger deal for Americans than other nationalities. Americans absolutely need things to have an end, for there to be a result. That’s why they haven’t taken to cricket: they just can’t get their heads around the fact that two teams can play each other for three days and end up having a draw! (They might have a point there, actually).
American football, baseball, and basketball games all rarely end in draws. Americans need results—a conclusion. Unless and until Bush and NASA set an actual date for a manned mission to Mars I fear that public support for the new plans will simply not materialize.
We live in terrifying times. A conflict with North Korea could escalate overnight into a nuclear exchange. We may be only months or even weeks away from terrorists destroying a city with their own nuclear bomb. Revolution and war could sweep across the Middle East like a forest fire at any time, plunging our oil-dependant Western world into chaos. At a time when the future itself is so uncertain, when people wake up every day wondering if they’ll turn on CNN and see live footage of something which will turn life upside down, people need to have something to look forward to, something positive, something definite. Something to make them believe that the future could be an exciting place. A manned mission to Mars could be that, I honestly believe that—but we have to face facts that the timing might just be wrong.
Or maybe it’s the timescale that’s wrong. Yes, people want adventures and adventurers. They want quests. But they want those adventures and quests to have beginnings, middles, and ends which they can see and experience for themselves. An invigorated space program has to have the same. NASA needs a genuine goal to reach for within a generation, not just a mandate to meekly and safely go where people have been before, and then maybe go a bit further in the far future—if they’re lucky.
I was part of a big outreach event in early July; my astronomical society held a “Saturn Day” to celebrate the arrival of Cassini at Saturn. We showed people all the latest pictures, ran computer simulations, that kind of thing. Part of my day was spent showing space-mad kids some of my meteorite collection, and at one point I was showing them to a particularly interested but painfully quiet young girl. Handing her two small boxes I asked her to try and guess what was in them. She had no idea what the tiny pieces of grit contained inside the boxes were, and shook her head. “That,” I said, pointing to the box on the left, “is a tiny piece of Moon rock…” Her eyes widened. “And that,” I added, nodding towards the other box, “is some rock from Mars…” Her eyes widened further. “So just think,” I told her, “you’re standing on Earth, and holding pieces of two other worlds in your hands…you’re touching three planets at the same time… not many people can say they’ve done that…”
No, they can’t. But we need the people joining NASA now, the new astronauts, to believe that they might be able to in the future, and that’s the whole point. Those men and women need to believe—no, to know—that they will at least have a fighting chance of not just going into space, but of going to the Moon and then on to Mars, within their time at NASA. We don’t need another generation of astronauts doomed to exile in low Earth orbit. They don’t want to be, either. The man and women joining NASA today want to Go Somewhere. Where? Well, I’ll give you a clue: it’s big, red, and covered in craters.
However, they need a reason to go to Mars, and they aren’t going there until there is a reason. And in my opinion, there’s only one reason—and has only ever been one reason—why people, politicians and the public, will rally behind a manned expedition to Mars.
To look for life.
There will only be the money, political will, and public support necessary to stage a manned mission to Mars if it is an adventure: a quest with finding life there as its ultimate goal. Maybe we need to refocus on that goal and that goal alone. Maybe we should rethink the unmanned program, concentrate our efforts on locating the most promising sites for life. Maybe then we should have a big push, design and build a no-distractions, single-goal, dedicated “Life Search” lander, kitted out with all the instruments needed to sniff out, uncover or dig up any microbes currently hiding on Mars. Let’s land a rover in Meridiani that can smell any methane and ammonia from microbes. Forget looking at the sky and watching shadows crawl around the outer edges of sundials; give it cameras with enough resolution to image microfossils, and a Beagle-type mole that can burrow under the surface and reveal the little beggars, if they’re there. Because if they are there, discovering them will cause a revolution in scientific thinking, and trigger a renaissance in public interest in and support for space exploration. It would Change Everything.
I have no idea what Kerry’s space policies are. I get the impression that it’s a low priority for him. That’s okay, as long as he’s honest, I can respect that even if I don’t agree with it. I suspect we need a Bartlett—a younger, more forward-looking man or woman who will support spaceflight loyally and truly in the long-term—not just some headline-hungry opportunist, to be in the Oval Office before we see a President stand before a breathless crowd and announce “We choose to go to Mars… We choose to go to Mars, to look for life…”
To go to Mars to look for life. Now that would be an adventure, a quest. It would have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The man and woman in the street would support that, if they were made to feel part of it. Politicians would pay for it, if they knew history would credit them for their support.
Enough. It’s time to grab the knives back off the politicians and get them to stop cutting and start building. If we don’t, then the Apollo 11 landing stage, which, as you read this, stands forlornly on the surface of the Moon, covered in dust and surrounded by boot-prints, and the nearby toppled flag, may not be seen again by human eyes for half a century or more.
When he stepped off Eagle’s landing pad and set foot on the lunar surface 35 years ago, taking that history-changing one small step, Neil Armstrong gazed up and saw a beautiful gibbous Earth shining above him, a fragile blue and white crystal orb glowing like a ship’s lantern in the darkness. However, he couldn’t see Mars in the sky above him. Not because the Sun was too bright, but because Mars was hidden beneath the Moon itself, thousands of miles beneath his dust-coated feet. If he had have been able to see it, I’m sure he would have wondered to himself how long it would be before one of his astronaut colleagues—maybe even himself—would walk on its ruddy surface. How disappointed he must have felt all these long years, looking up at Mars shining in Earth’s sky, without having had a single human visitor since he bounded across the Sea of Tranquility. As Mars blazed beacon-bright in Earth’s sky last summer, making its closest approach for sixty four thousand years, how Armstrong must have mourned what he, and we, have lost.
Forget our personal dreams and desires. Neil Armstrong has to see the first man or woman walk on Mars. He just has to. If he doesn’t, then we will have failed him.