Monday, October 25, 2010

Musical Monday - The Case for Mars by Symphony of Science

Mars is, as Carl Sagan says, a world of wonders. In his video, melodysheep makes The Case for Mars, another autotuned song featuring selections by Carl Sagan (using material from Cosmos) and Robert Zubrin (using material from The Mars Underground). Brian Cox and Penelope Boston are featured as well (using material from Wonders of the Solar System). The video is, as with all of melodysheep's videos, really cool. But it also underscores the fact that Mars is one of the great disappointments of my lifetime. No, not the planet itself, but the fact that even though we have had the capability to go there for the last thirty years, we just haven't bothered.

Mars holds special fascination for science fiction authors. Mars is featured in some of the classic works of science fiction, such as The War of the Worlds where H.G. Wells' invaders came from there, or Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars where a gentleman adventurer from Virginia was whisked away to battle tharks and win the hand of Dejah Thoris. Mars continued to fascinate science fiction authors through the Golden Age: Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet takes place on Mars, as does Arthur C. Clarke's Sands of Mars, and C.S. Lewis set Out of the Silent Planet there. Ray Bradbury's book The Martian Chronicles is a collection of stories that all feature the Red Planet. Isaac Asimov set David Starr, Space Ranger, the opener for his young adult series featuring the bodies of the solar system, on Mars. And Mars continues to fascinate science fiction authors. Greg Bear featured it in Moving Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote the trilogy Red Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars about terraforming the planet, and the Mars colony was heavily featured in the Babylon 5 television series. One could easily come up with a hundred science fiction stories that are set on Mars.

And this fascination is understandable, which is what makes our lack of ambition with respect to Mars so very frustrating. Although many early works of science fiction were based upon the then accepted (but since discovered to be incorrect) notion that Mars had a much thicker atmosphere than it actually has, science fiction authors have always known that Mars is the best possible option for humanity to expand off of the Earth. Both the Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers reached Mars in 1976, when I was seven. It took twenty years for us to get our acts together and follow-up the Viking landings with the Sojourner rover, and another seven years before the Spirit and Opportunity rovers touched down. The problem is not technical capability: we've had the technology to go to Mars, even to send humans to Mars, ever since the 1970s. The problem has been a complete failure of will and imagination.

I remember when I was young, my father, confident in the glow of the Apollo landings, looking at reports from Viking and later the Voyager program, telling me that by the time I was an adult we would have sent humans to Mars. "Wouldn't it be incredible to be one of those people" he would ask. And I agree. It would. But now, decades later, we are no closer to going than we were then. When I took my son to see Roving Mars it was bittersweet. The rovers are a technical triumph, but still, the narrative talked about how we would send people to follow them many years hence. In effect, we are no closer to Mars now than we were in the 1970s. I cannot truthfully tell him that I believe humans will go to Mars in his lifetime like my father told me when I was a boy. Instead we have screwed around in low-Earth orbit with the space shuttle and building a useless, missionless space station. As a nation our dreams, it seems, are no longer as large as they once were.

And Mars is a place we should go. And not just go, we should plan to settle there. Mars has the most important ingredients for human habitation: water, and atmosphere that could be altered to suit us, and enough gravity to hold on to it (but low enough gravity that building a space elevator there would be a lot easier than building one on Earth). Not only could we put people on Mars, we have the capability to terraform the planet using current technology. It would be a huge undertaking, and be massively expensive, but the payoff would be even more massive as we would have an entire new planet for us to live on. We shouldn't be going there in fifty years, or ten years - we should have been there ten years ago. We should have people living there now, laying the groundwork for permanent human habitation. But we aren't, and we probably won't. Not in my lifetime, and I fear not in the lifetimes of my children. Our ambitions, it seems, have withered away to nothing. And that annoys the hell out of me. It should annoy the hell out of you too.

This song is unavailable on Amazon, but you can acquire it for free (or a donation of your choosing) on the Symphony of Science Collector's Edition.

Previous Musical Monday: Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury by Rachel Bloom
Subsequent Musical Monday: A Wave of Reason by Symphony of Science

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