Sunday, January 25, 2004

Red and Dead

Sunday Night Journal — January 25, 2004

When President Bush announced recently that he wants to revitalize our space exploration program with projects for establishing a permanent base on the moon and sending men to Mars, my immediate reaction was excitement. I find it, in fact, a bit surprising that anyone would react otherwise, but then I remind myself that I grew up more or less simultaneously with the space program. Those of us who were born in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s were just old enough to understand the basic principles of space travel as they were presented to us by the team of Walt Disney and Werner von Braun, and at just the right age to expect that the development of space travel would recapitulate that of atmospheric flight in nice synchrony with our own lives.

My grandfather, born in the late 1870s, had seen, by the time I was born in 1948, flight develop from a disputed possibility to a fact so pervasive and influential as to have wrought fundamental changes throughout society. Of course I would witness a similar progress in space flight during my life. Why not? The physical principles were well understood and by the time I was twelve years old the basic engineering had been proven. All that remained was technological refinement: bigger, more powerful, and cheaper rockets. Then would come the expansion of infrastructure, so that the word “spaceport” would enter the dictionary just as “airport” had done, and by the time I was fifty or sixty years old people might well be vacationing on the moon.

This expectation was of course all the stronger in someone who read a lot of science fiction, as I did for several years in my teens. In these stories the inevitability of space flight was assumed: not only flight to our immediate neighborhood in the solar system, which was (and is) perfectly plausible within the limits of our current knowledge and at least somewhat so within the limits of our technology, but also interstellar travel, which requires, for useful fictional purposes, the postulation of a theoretical breakthrough that would eliminate the light-speed barrier, not to mention an as-yet-unimaginable technology to exploit this knowledge. It is very easy for a storyteller to set down terms like “hyperspace” and “warp drive” and hold them sufficient to explain convenient travel over distances of hundreds or thousands of light-years. It is so easy that we can easily overlook the lack of evidence that such a thing will ever be possible, and assume not only the inevitable progress of rocket flight toward routine near-space flight, but the equally inevitable supplanting of rockets by something capable of transcending the laws of physics as we presently know them.

The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (which, by the way, I consider the best science-fiction movie ever made, or at any rate the best one I’ve ever seen) perfectly captures the expected earlier stages of this progression. The earth-to-moon shuttle is like an airliner. The space station is somewhere between a military installation and a hotel. The first outpost on the moon is under construction. Plans are under way to visit the other planets. (The quasi-miraculous transition to interstellar flight is delegated to god-like aliens who are never seen and don’t have to explain themselves.)

Of course it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. We landed on the moon a year or so after 2001, but space travel has been fundamentally stagnant since then. It’s as if in 1957, thirty years after Lindbergh’s flight, air travel had still been something engaged in only by pilots, and at considerable risk. Some argue that this is due to a failure of will, but I suspect the difficulties are more fundamental: the amount of energy necessary to lift a useful object into space is prodigious and still beyond our ability to generate safely and inexpensively. Satellite launches are somewhat routine, but every trip of a human being into space remains an extremely risky business and so costly that the only economic justification for it is the possibility that it may lead to something else.

What keeps us wanting to do it? What (besides reflexes left over from my youth) accounts for my instant sense of excitement at the idea of a Mars mission? The single biggest factor is the question of whether there is life out there. To judge by the news stories about the mobile probes in place on Mars right now, the interest in this question is obsessive on the part of both the public and at least some of the scientists pursuing it. I suppose the scientists may emphasize it because they know that that is where public interest lies, and thus the continuing support of their research. But it is perfectly understandable. We can hardly conceive of a planet without life, and if we manage to do so we are likely to lose interest in it at once. The human mind that can muster a great deal of interest in pure inorganic matter for its own sake is rare. In the end most of us have only two questions about Mars: is there life there? And if there is not, is there mineral wealth? If the answer to both those questions is “no,” then only those who care about pure research into the nature of the solar system will have further inquiries, and they will find it hard to convince the rest of us that such inquiries warrant the enormous expenditures required to complete them.

I look at the pictures of Mars sent back by the rovers and find them thrilling. But the thrill derives mainly from the fact that I know they are of Mars, and that never before in human history have we been able to look upon this landscape. Its desolation is appalling. As I ponder it I find that I cannot help assuming that over those hills, or beyond that horizon, there is something green. There must be at least a bit of water and a little scrub or cactus. There must be. If not nearby, then perhaps a hundred miles away, or a thousand. If I try to imagine that no matter how far or in what direction I traveled on this world I would encounter nothing but more dust, rock, and, at the poles, sterile ice, I falter. And to the extent that I can conceive of this dead world the idea induces anxiety. To imagine myself standing on its surface is a little like imagining myself under water, unable to survive without artificial support, but with an edge of panic arising from the fact that the nearest breathable air, liquid water, and vegetation are millions of miles away.

Perhaps next week we will learn something different, but as far as we now know the red planet consists of millions of square miles of absolutely pure desert. Put that way, it seems nightmarish. And it makes the fantasies of hundreds of science fiction writers only the same sort of fancy that the mind of man has always raised up for its own entertainment, only composed of materials available in a technological culture.

What, then, of President Bush’s proposal? In spite of all I have just written, I would, given a chance, vote for it. It is a challenge and an adventure we shouldn’t refuse. And something utterly unforeseeable may come of it. There are those, like the Mars Society, who believe we could introduce life to Mars and create conditions under which it could sustain itself permanently. But this dream (a stirring one, I admit) strikes me as very unlikely, a serious underestimation of the complexity of nature and overestimation of ourselves. I think it most likely that after a century or two of exploring as best we can as much of interplanetary space as we can reach, we will face the fact that God has provided us with one world only, and that we are quarantined upon it.

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