The red planet
NASA has just this past week landed a spaceship on the planet Mars, the first time that it has been able to do a controlled descent to the planet’s surface in thirty years. What better illustrates the enormous challenge of space travel than the fact that fewer than half of the missions to Mars have ended in success. The others have crashed and malfunctioned.
NASA scientists and technicians were justifiably concerned as they waited to hear from the spacecraft, that it had in fact landed safely and was performing its functions and experiments as planned. This mission to Mars is a precursor to a manned (peopled?) mission in the not too distant future, and its success is a large step to getting people to the surface of the planet.
It is a remarkable step to be sure, but is it one that should lead to an expedition of astronauts? I am as romantic as the next sci-fi dreamer, but I have to wonder whether it will ever be possible to have people travelling to the planets. A trip to the moon to gather rocks is one thing. The moon is a paltry ten times the diameter of the Earth away and we literally and figuratively run circles around the globe constantly. But a trip to the planets is another issue. Mars is more than 100 times as far from the earth at its closest approach and a trip would take months if not years, instead of days and it would expose astronauts to gamma rays, solar radiation and an isolation that even the past Antarctic explorers couldn’t imagine. Then assuming the travellers landed safely after enduring this most arduous of journeys, they would then have to perform their functions and then face the dangers of getting off the planet without the incredible NASA backup and venture back again! This is not Star Trek folks. The chances of astronauts being able to accomplish this successfully borders on the slim and slight.
Whatever successes we have had in space have come at the hands of the incredible technology we have developed. That technology has lead to new materials, computers and robots that are light years ahead of what we thought was possible even a few decades ago. In comparison, our bodies have remained the same, vulnerable, expensive to maintain and easily damaged by even the most benign of what space travel has to offer. In addition space probes and the like have not need to give up lives, breathe, say good-bye to families and endure what I cannot imagine. If they malfunction, its just so much metal and plastic sitting in the red dust. We have plenty more to send. And once there they don’t have to come back. It’s a one-way deal that they are only to happy to make.
So, why I ask, the rush to send people to Mars or to any other planet for that matter? There is no comparison in history to this trek. There is no hope of riches or wealth or other people or anything else that our robots can’t do for us. The vast journeys of the past whether to the New World or to Antarctica pale in comparison to what we intend with the red planet. What’s that expression? Fools rush in……
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