Mission to Mars?

by Conor Friedersdorf

The moon is not enough! That's the thrust of Tom Wolfe's argument in The New York Times, where he laments America's longtime failure to do anything impressive in space. He lays blame for this post-Apollo problem on a lack of big thinkers at NASA.

The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about. It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

That's a sound way to think about the space program. Robert Heinlein put it this way: "The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in."

But look. Earth is going to be hit by another extinction level asteroid long before the sun is going to burn up. An obligation to preserve the only meaningful life that we know suggests that we spend money on scanning the sky for gargantuan rocks hurtling toward us, safeguarding humanity against pandemic diseases and stopping nuclear proliferation. I'd be thrilled to learn that we'll survive half as long as it takes the sun to burn up!