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 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.