We’re Going to Mars

Mars is a rocky little planet a little more than half the diameter of Earth with about 38% of Earth’s gravity. It has an extremely thin atmosphere of 98% carbon dioxide, while earth’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen. By the way, don’t pay to have “pure” nitrogen in your tires. Air is 78% nitrogen, and you don’t have to pay $40 for the slight advantage of having a higher concentration. Anyway, back to the red planet.

Mars/Earth Comparison

Mars has an average distance from Earth of 250 million km. Sometimes it is closer, sometimes much farther. And Mars has no liquid water as far as we can measure. There may be evidence that water has appeared on the surface, but there’s not enough of it to sustain life as far we anyone can tell. Life. Well, we have no idea if there’s anything living on Mars, but it is fairly obvious that humans can’t live there. With all that, human beings have had an unquenchable desire to travel to this barren world. But there is no promise of a return, and there are resources to speak of, so how anyone is going to survive is still being debated.

So why go? Mars One, one of a handful of serious attempts to send people to Mars, has been preparing ostensibly ordinary people for the daunting reality of interplanetary transit. According to a few sources, only 24 people in history have ever left Earth’s orbit. And only about 550 people have even been in space. That’s an infinitesimal fraction of the world’s population. (I just spent a few minutes listening to someone who has not only convinced himself that the moon landings were faked, but insists, through his “extensive” research, that the moon is in fact an illusion. How this has been perpetrated on humanity for thousands of years is beyond comprehension. But people are entitled to their opinions.) I think the reason for going is plain to see: because it’s there.

The realities of space travel are overwhelming to most people. The relatively small number of individuals who have dared to leave this planet is a testament to how utterly insane a prospect going to another planet reveals itself to be. The obstacles are mounting now, and it has to be obvious that this is a foolish endeavour. That being said, once again, hundreds of people have already signed up for a long-ass trip through space. Essentially, four people will be confined within a capsule the size of a dumpster, hurtling between worlds faster than anyone has gone since Gene Cernan, for four long months without so much as a hot meal or a shower. And yet people are lining up.

So, there’s no hope of returning to Earth. No breathable atmosphere, no cool breezes, no refreshing streams, and no blissful summer afternoons. No bar-b-queues, no singing birds or cricket-serenaded evenings. No thunderstorms, and no white Christmases. Instead, there will be a barren, lifeless rock, millions of kilometers from home. Oh, but this is your new home. The shock will have hit you by now, along with maybe some mild panic and surely some mental issues. Really, the one thing that bothers me about this enterprise is that the people who will be most willing to go, leaving all of humanity behind, are the ones who are probably most likely to kill the others along the way. I hope they choose wisely.

So, for some, Mars beckons. As for me, I am content to stay here on this dreary little planet with my hiking trails and waterfalls, going to the pub in town with my friends, the smell of bread in the oven, and a good heavy rain on a summer night. Earth has a lot going for it as a tourist attraction. We’ve got air. You can go outside without a spacesuit. You won’t have to recycle your urine. And we accept Visa and Mastercard.

But the thought of being world famous, having institutions named for you, just for travelling through space in a broom closet with four other people, landing and establishing a settlement despite the perils, and surviving, or not – they’ll name a school after you either way – it has some appeal. But is it worth it? For some I suppose it is. And the allure is ingrained in our psyche. I suppose this is why I have a telescope. We have conjured fantasies about it. An entire genre of film was inspired by our dreams of going to space. And it has only just begun. Perhaps within my lifetime humans will plant their feet on another planet, and proceed to ruin it. Ah, but I’ve grown cynical. I can’t help it, sometimes. But it’s really very exciting. Someday we’ll get there, and as Carl Sagan said, we will travel to the stars.


While You Were Out

Not long ago, not as long ago as most people realize, we lived on a different planet. It looked very much like this one. The sky was blue. Seasons changed – winter, spring, summer, autumn. Children played. Well, you see. That’s where you might notice something. I realize I betray my age when I start a sentence with, “when I was a kid…” If you were born in the 1990’s you probably haven’t said this phrase much. But I’ll bet you have once or twice. I’ve been hearing my parents say it all my life, and they were young when I was born – in their early 20’s. You will notice you live on an alternate world when you look over your shoulder at the past two decades. That’s a good line of demarcation. I’m not sure that I noticed the world changing underneath my feet when I was 25. But here I sit exactly where my parents were when I knew I was an adult.

A few days ago I mentioned to someone that the film “Independence Day” came out in 1996. That someone replied, “that’s like 20 years ago!” We both just paused. It was weird to think about that much time passing. And how the world has changed since. Back in ’96 most Americans did not have a mobile phone. Shopping online involved a phone call. Netflix, Google, and Wikipedia had not been invented. There was no TSA, no iPod, no Twitter, Instagram, no Facebook or Myspace (yes, it’s still a thing) and no Youtube. It’s hard to believe there was a time when the world as we know it did not exist.

Facebook has only been around a little over 11 years. That’s hard to accept, since now it seems everyone and everything, including Easy Lunchboxes, has a Facebook presence. Nowadays, I would be surprised if a business or any enterprise didn’t have a Facebook page. Eleven years! Not bad, Zuckerberg (and you too, Saverin). It makes you wonder what the world will look like in another 11 years. We’ll all have to wait. You won’t notice it while it’s happening, the entire world being replaced beneath your feet.

When my brother and I were kids, we played outside most days. In Texas you can do this like 11 1/2 months out of the year, especially when you’re young. We played outside in the snow (yes, it snows) and in 40º C heat. These days, people seem to be allergic to weather. “It’s too hot!” Bullshit! We stood on the surface of the sun for sixteen hours a day all summer long. The people on this planet are, as we would say, pussies.

The world I knew is essentially gone, replaced with this softer, squishier one where everyone gets a participation medal. There are no winners or losers. And there is a continual dumbing-down of our citizenry going on here, and a very few individuals seem to have taken notice. No one reads the newspaper anymore. We get sound bites and talking heads and call it journalism. And it makes some of us want to scream obscenities on the nearest PA system, and I’ve got one, by the way. Oh, maybe I should start a podcast. (FUCK! Now I’m part of the problem!)

It’s okay, you know. The world my parents were born in was replaced in the 1960’s by something illustrated by Peter Max and accompanied by a performance piece by Yoko Ono. It’s no one’s fault, I see now. They just outgrew the planet they were occupying, so it was time to molt, shedding the skin of their post-WWII world and all it’s values, in exchange for this psychedelic, strawberry-scented, down-to-earth earth. Then they all grew up and we got the 80’s. I don’t know whether to thank the ‘boomer generation or accuse them. Or we’ll forgive them, perhaps.

So, here we are, well into the 21st century, and I’m confident we still don’t know what we’re doing or where we’re going. I don’t know if my generation ever accomplished anything in the way generations have been credited with great achievements. My grandparents won the war, both abroad and at home. Their children fought for civil rights. What have we accomplished? Social media?

But prior to a few years ago, self-publishing was almost unheard of. Previous generations couldn’t get stuff delivered on a Sunday. No one could work from home, really. But now there is no separation between the two. “Work from home” is blurring the line between our personal lives and our work lives. And our new planet, the one we’re still calling “earth” is open all night. We’re all available at all hours. When someone texts me, I’m expected to reply immediately. In 1996 you could be “offline” and there were no consequences, unless you were an ER physician.

That world is gone. And so soon with this one be. Change is not only painful, it is also inevitable, a juggernaut, a freight train barreling straight toward us. If you try to resist it, you will be a proverbial bug on a windshield. And the juggernaut will continue, never feeling the slightest resistance. It’s nice to look back and recollect on those days when life seemed simpler. It’s funny to think of 1996 as the “good old days”, too. (Hell, in 1984 we were afraid of Communism more than terrorism. How times have changed!) So, the next time you are talking to someone who doesn’t recognize 80% of the cultural references you mention, thank them in advance for the great things their generation will achieve. Tell them how fortunate they are. And forgive them for being so lucky. They really have no idea how good they’ve got it.

Anything You Ever Wanted to Know

Here in North Texas, on our local public radio station, KERA, there is a weekly call-in show called “Anything You Ever Wanted to Know“, which attempts to answer questions posed by the audience, either via phone or email or Twitter. I am borrowing the title today to explore this notion, that here in the 21st century, we have at our disposal all the knowledge so far gathered about this world and the space beyond it. What have you always wanted to know? Do we believe the answers are out there somewhere? The typical call usually involves someone wanting to know where to find a product or service, or advice on how to get rid of fire ants, or practically anything one could find by using Google or any other search engine (does anyone use Yahoo? Bing?, really?)

How much information is out there is practically unknowable. The wealth of human knowledge is virtually infinite, because it keeps multiplying, and we will never reach the horizon. I can google (see, it’s in our lexicon) anything, and I’ll probably get pages of results. It’s rare – almost unheard of – to get just a few results back, usually by enclosing your search terms in quotes, prompting an exact match requirement. But with so much information out there – videos showing how to separate eggs, circuit board layouts, specifications for building a motorcycle, the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe – you would think that we would be a more literate and enlightened society. There it is. Everything you want to know within a few keystrokes or a mouse-click. And yet, many of us remain in the dark.

Naturally, there are things we may never know, like who was really behind the Kennedy assassination or whether Shakespeare was truly solely responsible for all the works attributed to him. But the great thing about the internet is that all theories have a voice. That’s also one of the worst things about it. But information is valuable, even if it’s wrong. Really. If we only received 100% accurate data, how would we know if it were factual? People in the DPRK (North Korea) receive a certain “truth”, but they are not better off for it.

In my day job, people come to me many times each day with requests for information – information they could gather if they looked for it. I’d like to tell them, “you will find this the same way I would: by looking it up.” The truth is, I have the answers, usually, and I tell them what I know. But my point is, it’s no secret. Anyone can find the answers. They only need to look.

We ought to all be the most informed generation the world has ever seen. We possess all the knowledge from all generations that came before us. Why do we know so little? Why is it more important for us to follow “American Idol” contestants than to learn about the history of the Roman Empire or how to solve math problems? I appreciate that entertainment is an important part of our culture, but maybe we have had our fill. Looking at waistlines, you can understand how Americans approach things. (Sorry, people, but you know I’m right.)

Anyway, I don’t mean to pontificate. I’m as guilty as anyone else for indulging in the inane. One of my favorite guilty pleasures is dash-cam videos from Russia. So, yeah. I realize I should be watching Veritasium, but come on. It’s like I know what foods are good for me, and yet I still like fries. That is another subject, actually, because it goes to evolutionary predisposition. I’ve covered it before, but there’s room for more thought on it, and I’ll more than likely write about it in the near future. We humans tend to desire pleasure more than growth. Growth is painful. Muscles are pulled and stretched in order to be built up. We all know this process to be undesirable, but we like the results, after the soreness vanishes. Expanding one’s mind also requires some exercise. But it will be beneficial in the long run.

If any of us truly do not want to know anything, I feel sorry for them. It’s my primary motivator, beyond the basic element of food and water, to be informed. I want to know stuff. I like knowing about the Tudors or the Etruscans. I love where history and technology intersect. I like listening to all kinds of music. I love haiku. And I want to try new things – things I haven’t dared to try. How to sew a coat, how to make cheesecake from scratch, how to take better photographs. These are all things I’ve challenged myself to accomplish, and I made many mistakes along the way, but that’s part of learning. Anything you ever wanted to know is out there, waiting for you to discover and explore. And if you can’t find the answer, maybe you can become the expert. And next time you are listening to that radio show, you might feel the need to add your input. Jeff Whittington would thank you.