Andersen: Home sweet Mars!
On Jan. 20, President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address: “I want Americans to … push out into the solar system not just to visit but to stay.”
I had to check the record to make sure what I had heard. True enough, the president stated that Americans would venture into space “to stay.” That means colonizing space with human pilgrims.
Obama was giving a pep talk to the glories of American technology, especially to the space program. When in doubt of domestic affairs, going to space is guaranteed to spur the national ego. It starts with missions such as Scott Kelly’s yearlong stay in space.
“So good luck, captain,” cheered Obama during the same space-age message. “Make sure to Instagram it. We’re proud of you.” This was followed by thunderous applause.
Many Americans feel there is good reason for going into space. “The final frontier,” as Star Trek’s Capt. Kirk put it, has romantic allure as the ultimate human destiny. Carl Sagan exulted about the necessity for exploring space — Mars in particular — as part of our mental makeup as the curious species.
“Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there,” Sagan wrote in a dreamy, expansionist mood. “Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us.”
Sagan marveled at the human propensity to wander, suggesting that our roots as hunter-gatherers are extant within the deepest folds of our gray matter and our genes. He believed that Mars would be the next-best place for our wandering minds, bodies and spirits.
As a species, we have wandered across the globe through our relatively short history often because the places we left had become uninhabitable. Drought, war, disease and pestilence compelled human migrations. Wandering man sought to escape from calamity with the perpetual hope for a better future over yonder mountains or beyond the seas.
Rudyard Kipling, in “The Explorer,” poeticized: “Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes / On one everlasting whisper day and night repeated so / ‘Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges / Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!’”
Empires were sought beyond those ranges, and empires colonized those hidden places, often at a brutal cost to indigenous inhabitants and to the explorers themselves. Joseph Conrad described these things in “Heart of Darkness”:
“The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.”
Our delusion is that space offers a bounty beyond what we already have on Earth, even though exploration here has yet to reach the depths of the sea or the microcosms of life. The greatest frontiers remain the mind, the soul, the nature of existence and the reason for being. The truth is that we humans are not of space. We are of the Earth, and we have work to do here.
Obama’s proclamation calls for habitation on a desolate planet where man can witness conditions that prohibit what we know of as life. Perhaps we are going there to learn how to exist without it.
As a parochial terrestrial, it seems to me that we had better first learn how to coexist with life on “Spaceship Earth.” Humanity is seriously challenged with planetary existence and has yet to earn the moral privilege of space colonization.
Climate change, species extinctions, soil depletion, war and the killing of the oceans may seem worth escaping from, but Mars is no Garden of Eden. That is Earth’s distinction, or at least it was until we came along.
Before racing off to Mars, before colonizing space, let us honor our blue-and-green planet. Let us explore ourselves and discover how to live in accordance with others and in peace with the natural world. Let us appreciate the ways of this world before we have totally undone its natural harmony.
Let us discover home before we plant an American flag on Mars.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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