Columns

Krishnamurthy ’19: Mars gives us hope

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, April 4, 2016

On April 22, 2013, Mars One, a Dutch-based nonprofit venture, announced its search for volunteer astronauts to travel one-way to Mars. Immediately, the news was met with colossal skepticism. Anthony Weir, author of the best-selling novel “The Martian,” said, “I don’t take Mars One seriously at all.” Some commentators, unsparing in their contempt, deemed it an “overoptimistic, delusory idea that falls just short of being a joke.” But the maelstrom of denunciations from self-styled experts was not enough to stifle the resolve of hardcore Red Planet enthusiasts. SpaceX, the space exploration company founded by Elon Musk, is in the midst of developing more robust rocket designs capable of longer journeys — possibly to Mars.

I don’t know how well the private sector’s attempts at reaching and then colonizing Mars with permanent human settlements will turn out. Yet I can’t help but feel that, irrespective of the numerous logistical and ethical obstacles, sending a manned flight to Mars — or, at least trying to — isn’t so unreasonable. After all, humans are irrepressibly pro-social and perennially dissatisfied creatures. Exploration — travelling to new places and seeking new wonders despite the dangers and the naysayers — is at some level a core component of humanity. The very fact that the recent burst of interest in and enthusiasm about a Mars voyage has come principally from private individuals, not government officials with perverse geopolitical ambitions, suggests that the exploration of the cosmos is a deeply human and natural impulse.

Indulging this collective yearning with an actual mission to Mars would, of course, be terrifically expensive and require the unlikely compliance and coordination of several cash-strapped government agencies. But the benefits of accomplishing such a lofty objective make the whole endeavor truly worthwhile. American history demonstrates, with astounding clarity, the socioeconomic and cultural rejuvenation that can result from successes in space exploration. For example, the years after 1969 — when the crew members of Apollo 11 became the first men to land on the moon — saw mesmerizing leaps in various scientific fields and technology. Advances in seismology, medical innovation, firefighting and alternative energy development catapulted the economy forward. American schools adopted more rigorous educational standards and cultivated a new generation of future-oriented scholars, mathematicians and scientists. The space landings, which rendered the cosmos far more accessible than previously believed, even birthed the genre of science fiction, a whole new realm of art that indelibly redefined American filmmaking and literature.

Far more significant than the material achievements, though, were the spiritual ones. For the first time in the 20th century, the great project of mankind wasn’t and didn’t have to be hinged on the destruction of entire continents. Our minds, dedicated for decades to the orchestration of war and perpetuation of political ideologies, could now be trained on the heavens, a universal point of fascination that has throughout history transcended distinctions of race and religion. And, for the first time in decades, people of all nationalities and creeds could confidently take some pride in their humanity. We Americans started studying harder disciplines, tackling tougher problems and dreaming bigger dreams. There was hope that men, in spite of all the chaos and commotion down on Earth, could be the chief architects of their own destinies; there was hope that peace in space might translate into peace at home; there was hope that cooperation might replace conflict as the world’s elemental paradigm; there was, just simply, hope.

As with any human endeavor, though, there is always the defeatist refrain of, “Why even bother? What’s the point? Who cares?” The world is plagued by poverty, violence and melancholy; Mars, with its unnavigable canyons and rusty iron deposits, offers little palpable relief for most people. But “Why?” is a question that has been asked, ceaselessly, for millennia. Why climb Mount Everest? Why go to the Moon? Why try to go to Mars? Because, as President John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1962, “that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win.”

And, if that isn’t reason enough, at least consider my personal plight: I’ll have a better chance of finding a girlfriend up there, on Mars, than on this stinking planet.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached on Tinder or at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu.

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