AMATEUR NATURALIST

Lost in space: The hope to walk around on Mars

Posted May 20, 2012, at 4:18 p.m.
The sun sets on Mars.
Photo courtesy of NASA
The sun sets on Mars.

Every so often in these pages I come staggering out of the woods with twigs in what’s left of my hair and caterpillars angling up my socks and my eyeballs dilated and aiming in different directions with notions of sinister household vehicles or what computer is trying to seize control of my brain.

It’s been happening more often this spring, and lately from under my rock near the cedars I cannot stop thinking about the fact that I’m never going to step foot on Mars.

President Obama projects humans will be on the way there in about 20 years, and if that happens there’s an outside chance I’ll be around to watch it on TV. If so I’ll be glad to take that as my participation in it. But based on experience, I sort of doubt even that will happen. We don’t even have a spaceship anymore.

I have to tell you that this is not what I — or practically anybody else — in about 1968 would have predicted for 2012. Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer who famously missed by one month his early-1950s prediction of when humans would step on the moon, imagined fully functioning lunar towns for 2001. In January 1960, Science News reported space experts were confident that humans could land on Mars within 10 years. A bit later as a teenager, I was thinking I might be on one of the missions. In the 1970s I still sort of assumed humans would be living on Mars in prefab space-age hovels by The Year 2000, an ominous-sounding date. It was still the New Frontier.

Somehow, though, that has all gone away except in empty political rhetoric and start-and-stop planning based on the rhetoric. Obama has no more idea what, if anything, the next few governments will do about Mars than I do.

The problem has been how to spend our public money. Banks, corporations and insurance companies think they should have most of it. As long as there’s no money to be made in outer space, they’re going to steer as much cash as possible themselvesward, which is to say, downward into dust. Another powerful political voice says poverty should be cured before we waste public money on frivolous trips to nowhere. This argument makes more moral sense than the moneymakers make, but the trouble is, as Jesus pointed out, if we follow it we’ll never be going anywhere.

Why should money go to NASA rather than to struggling oil, insurance and pharmaceutical companies who are always dangerously on the brink of missing their profit projections, or to food and medicine for poor people?

I can answer this question. But to accept it, you have to agree to one minor point. That point is: The universe is larger than what we see with our eyes or instruments.

This should be easy to accept because (1) for those of us who live in the modern world, science already accepts this is true (e.g., 96 percent of the universe is thought to be composed of undetected “dark matter”) and (2) even if you believe the religious metaphor that the world is only about 5,000 years old, you still believe God is bigger than anything you can see.

So no matter how you look at it, more is going on than meets the eye.

Among the most elusive things that are strictly speaking invisible, but real, are the complexities of the mind — emotions, moral feelings, intuitions, dreams, psychologies of all kinds that if left unnourished or even unattended turn out bad. In some cases, really bad. Whether damaged psychologies can all be effectively treated by chemicals remains to be seen. I doubt it. But even if they could, the world still gives shape and health — or ill health — to people’s minds, emotions, imaginative and intuitive life, and so on. And as our minds go, so goes the nation.

So we have to take care of our minds. That is what education is about: shaping minds so they can function healthily, productively and richly.

(What “richly” means is an important point that has to be taken up another time.) We have to take care of our bodies, too, of course, and that’s where the argument for providing food and shelter to poor people before exploring space has validity.

But exploring is an important human activity. It’s a component of shaping healthy, productive, rich minds, and in turn, healthy, productive, rich cultures. There are all kinds of exploring. From poking around in the woods, to testing your endurance against mountaintops, to sailing fragile vessels across huge oceans that appear to be flat, to cutting footprints on the moon. The larger the leap for a human, the larger the leap for humankind.

A “leap” is made in all sorts of ways. From sending off a handful of people to Mars, to thinking through the theory of relativity, to coming out from under some bo tree or Walden Pond or other wilderness with 10 commandments or suras for a Quran.

Exploration is the opposite of a frivolous game. It is an essential component of the health of a race. Both literally and figuratively, the sky’s the limit. But for some reason which involves avarice, we have stopped going there. And we are showing distinct signs of malnutrition.

Dana Wilde’s collection of Amateur Naturalist and other writings, “The Other End of the Driveway,” is available electronically and in paperback from Booklocker.com. “ Nebulae,” his collection of essays on the stars, will be available this summer.

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