Say this to a physicist, you'll get one of two reactions: "Yeah, go for it!" or "Utter waste of perfectly good research funds." Say it to any science fiction fan and, depending on their age, one of several books immediately spring to mind: Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, or Kim Stanley Robinson's more recent Mars trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. All are ripping good yarns of space exploration and colonization, some more technically astute than others, some with a more cultural bent, some focusing on the foibles of the explorers. My favorite of this group is Bradbury's Martian Chronicles for its humanism. But my real favorite is one that seldom gets mentioned, by my old standby Robert Heinlein: The Green Hills of Earth. This is because it's dead romantic. And that should make the naysayers pay attention.
Before you all go "Yuck! What's that got to do with Science?", let me steal a minute from the admitted romance of Seanifer (or "Jean" as El Finster calls the happy couple) to remind you that science is an endeavor of exploration. Exploration is inherently romantic, whether its equipment is pipettes, positron emitters, or pitons. It often doesn't seem very romantic or glamorous when you're pipetting solutions, calibrating instruments, or clinging to a cliff-face thinking "I'm gonna dieeee!" And you know, it's not. Sweat is not glamorous, whether it's intellectual or literal. It's the discoveries that are glamorous, and that shine rubs off on both the discoverer and the slog that led up to it.
Exploration and discovery have more than just tangible benefits. More important than the actual knowledge or invention, sometimes, is just the fact of the attempt, including the ignominious failures before the final success. The thing about discoveries and exploration is that they're never just an individual effort. All those guys who get credit for being the first? They didn't get there alone. In the background pushing their buttocks up the mountain were loving wives and husbands, parents, Sherpas, earlier researchers, financial backers, grant agencies, universities, graduate students, journalists, poets, and novelists.
Yes, poets and novelists. Cue "The Green Hills of Earth." First printed in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947 and later collected as part of Heinlein's "Future History" stories in an eponymous anthology and later in The Past Through Tomorrow, "The Green Hills of Earth" uses one of the oldest of tropes, the blind minstrel, to give readers a snapshot of "spacer" culture in an age when Mars is settled, asteroid mining is common, and even Venus is being homesteaded. When I say this is an old trope, think Homer and the Odyssey. "Green Hills" has the same kind of helpless longing for home coupled with hopeless fate-driven wanderlust. It romanticizes the most exotic type of travel imaginable: into the unknown. There's a long tradition of exploration literature, of blind minstrels singing about mad explorers going off half-cocked and ill-prepared only to come home fabulously wealthy for having seen unspeakable wonders. The Old English poem/poet Widsith gives us a catalog of his traveling companions that includes Offa and Attila, and the Israelites and the Egyptians. Okay, so he exaggerates a little. Think of it as a metaphor. But before giving us his long list of travels, Widsith (literally "far traveled") says,
Therefore I passed through many foreign lands
and through spacious ground. Good and evil
there I became acquainted with while my native country was remote,
tho my kinsman's spirit followed from afar.
It's that last line that sums up the importance of exploration. It explains why thousands of people line the streets of New York for the marathon every year to cheer on the runners. Every time someone attempts something extraordinary, whether it's a physical or mental feat, that attempt and the eventual success shines a little reflected glory on all of us, makes us stand up a little straighter, try a little harder, think a little more about what we might leave as a legacy. Great accomplishments inspire us. Every time there's a shuttle launch, I'm there in spirit screaming "Go baby go!" as the rockets fire because a part of me goes with its occupants.
Heinlein was a former naval officer himself and knew very well that the siren call of the sea was both a literal hankering for new sights and sounds, and a metaphor for the human restlessness and curiosity that drives the survival of our species (and sometimes seems to be helping us into extinction, along with the rest of the planet). "Green Hills" takes its title from a song written by "Noisy" Rhysling, the story's blind singer, one of the few tunes mentioned that Heinlein bothered to flesh out. It's Kiplingesque in style and tone, and yet not by any means doggerel. The stanza that always chokes me up is this one:
Out ride the sons of Terra,
Far drives the thundering jet,
Up leaps a race of Earthmen,
Out, far, and onward yet ---
It was the first thing I thought of when the Challenger exploded and again when we lost Columbia. Those two disasters are usually the strongest part of the arguments made against going to Mars. It's not safe. We don't have the technology. It's too risky. What crap! I'm sure that's been said to every explorer from Odysseus to Admiral Perry. In just over twenty years, we have lost two shuttles and their crews. For a sobering comparison, check the worldwide shipwreck list at Wikipedia. One database has documented 100,000 wrecks in North American waters alone over the last 400 years, an average of 250 per year. Safety is a poor argument to stay home. Most of us would never get out of bed if that were truly an issue, let alone leave the house. If you compare our levels of past and current technological sophistication, we basically went to the moon in glorified tin cans. What's stopping us now?
The waste-of-money part, perhaps? Look, we've all got our pet projects, our turf we want to protect, discoveries that are just around the corner, that need just a little more time and money to make, and it's never easy apportioning the limited dollars, especially in this grossly anti-science milieu. One way to counter this problem is to invite everyone else on board. I don't think the US should be the only ones going to Mars. It should be an international scientific commission planning it, and it should solicit commercial investment. For a start, talk to Sir Richard Branson of Virgin. He's into funding big new projects. He's already got dibs on SpaceShipOne's X Prize technology for Virgin Galactic. Mars seems like a good destination. And tourism is a great way to fund the scientific research bonanza that Mars colonization represents. Some of the best R&D has come out of commercial ventures like Bell Labs.
For that matter, we all know that some great developments have come out of the space program itself. I have a bad habit of thinking of space exploration as "pure" research, which it isn't. It's much more akin to applied research. Launching a rocket into space, getting it to its destination, keeping its crew alive and healthy while they explore, and then getting them home all present a series of problems to be solved. Many of those problems have applications to existing problems on earth, and have resulted in advances in everything from medical technology to new engine lubricants.
But again, that's not the main reason to go. The main reason to go is the view. Many of the Apollo and shuttle astronauts have talked about the effects of seeing the whole globe at once, and I've often thought it should be a requirement that any newly elected leader take a little trip into space to, uh, broaden his or her horizons. Talk about a radical change in perspective. It won't by any means solve all our problems, but it would be a sobering experience at worst. (And there's more than one politician I'd like to ship to Mars permanently. After a couple hundred years as a penal colony, maybe they'd all turn out okay after all, like Australians. And of course, there's all that inspiration, too, which I still maintain is the most important part of exploration.
So would I go? In a heartbeat. After all, they're going to need somebody who knows from poetry and fiction. Besides, I figure it's my best chance of losing weight. Sign me up. I'm gone.