Thoughts on Mars Past Goals and Future Exploration

WE are in danger, danger of not realising our dreams. I had attended the 4th European Mars Conference at the Open University in the UK, 2004, and was inspired and impressed by the varied presentations and the visionary goals. Since then, the whole experience and the story of reaching the Martian Grail has been further impressed upon me by two books I had recently read.

The first book, The Arctic Grail (1988), by Pierre Berton, chronicled the explorations of the British Navy in the Eighteenth Century, highlighting the intransigence of the Admiralty in its attempts to conquer the Northwest Passage. The nationalistic approach, the non-adoption of native survival customs, the ill-preparedness for the cold, scurvy and overland-travel even after almost a century of documented successes in those areas by seasoned arctic explorers, was wholly negligent. Some might think that that was a sign of the times. That is true; but NASA is a sign of our times. And things were not looking good.

NASA reminded me of the old Admiralty. Obstinate in its approaches to space travel and not heeding advice and warnings from experienced scientists, technicians and senior astronauts, NASA had rekindled the complacent culture of the Admiralty, both organisations suffering loss of life and folly after folly. Just think of the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, which surely rank with the Franklin Expedition (among other near disasters). With failed robotic Mars expeditions, the cancelled orbital space plane programme, the re-jinked Space Exploration Initiative and the lustreless International Space Station, NASA had failed to recapture the glory days of its moon shots, just as the arctic expeditions were used to employ sailors and to glorify the Empire after Napoleon’s defeat.

The parallels are striking. I can only hope that in a century’s time, people do not look back at our time and wonder with dismay, what went wrong?

The second book is Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (2003 translation). In it, the character Zarathustra muses: Mankind still has no goal… if the goal of mankind is still lacking, is not also mankind itself still lacking?'(pg 45). Well, to me the answer must be a resounding ‘yes’!

You may be thinking that mankind has goals! Alleviating poverty, eliminating diseases, increasing education, cleaning air, land and sea, and forestalling starvation, etc, are all goals of mankind are they not? Well, no. They are not goals; they are Rights. Everyone has the Right to be free of poverty and disease, to be educated, to have clean food, water and air, etc. Going to Mars is not a Right. It has to be strove for; attained to. Going to Mars continues our long and proud heritage of human exploration. A worthy goal indeed for mankind. But everyone has to believe in the goal.

How can we achieve this? We would need a joined-up Mars programme. In an ideal world, NASA, ESA, the Russians, Japanese, Chinese and other space-orientated nations would establish a joined-up policy from all of the individual national pursuits. We would learn from each other, learn from the past and from our collective mistakes so that one overall Mars programme would be instituted. We would need to create a balance between public, corporate and private initiative, sustained effort, financing, and continued support for decades.

But that is in an ideal world. In reality, each nation is pursuing their own agenda, like the British, (and later) American and Scandinavian efforts to discover the Northwest Passage and the North Pole. Each nation has the same goal, but achieving it with diminishing funds and support will be next to impossible, unless there is a radical shake-up of the space establishment’. The goals of exploration, whether to the ends of the Earth or Mars, mean different things to different people, but in the end, it can only benefit mankind.

Is Mars too far or too expensive? Tell that to Columbus or the Pilgrims or to Neil Armstrong. Why have costly Olympics or other world sporting events or fly around the world on holidays? They, among other entertainment and adventures, may benefit and enrich human life, but are costly pursuits. In all honesty, Mars would not benefit the public for some time, perhaps not for a generation. But who does not save for their children’s further education or wedding in a generation’s time, with no immediate benefits? Who does not invest in mortgages, pensions, insurance or other financial plans? They are risk investments that mature or bear fruit in a generation’s time. Going to Mars is the same; a small investment now will bring future benefits and security for humans. At this moment private corporations, interests and other public/private industries are bringing costs down by investing their own time and money so that the public does not have to bear all the costs. They will profit initially, but that private profit will be the guarantor of future missions and public benefit and involvement in Mars.

Maybe we are learning. It is ironic that the Mars Society, dedicated to the exploration and colonisation of Mars, has its Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) in the high arctic on Devon Island. What would the Admiralty of old have made of that? Now NASA has announced plans to return to the moon and possibly launch missions to Mars from there. Let us hope that there is a resurgence of the old NASA can-do spirit, that they have learned the lessons from the past and are keen to set a new goal for all mankind. Going to Mars would be the most selfless thing that mankind has done.