I find myself gritting my teeth every time I hear about Denis Tito’s recently-announced plans for a Mars fly-by in 2018. Even Tito admits it’s a stunt, but everyone involved gushes on about how “inspirational” it’ll be.
How has inspiration materially advanced the cause of space exploration and settlement? Millions of us were inspired decades ago to go to Mars, and do the other thing, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…sorry, you know how easy it is to channel Kennedy at a time like this. How has our inspiration brought it any closer?
We define a True Believer as somebody who scorns “boots and flags” in favor of both science and permanent settlement…and what’s a mission in which a latter-day PT Barnum slingshots a couple of clowns around Mars amount to, other than boots-n-flags, without the boots ever getting dirtied by red Martian dust? Given that it’s called “Mission for America”, I guess they will at least wave the Stars-and-Stripes as they whip by. Into a video camera, because it’s unlikely that anybody at Mars will give a rat’s ass.
“Inspiration” has become intellectual junk food. All those initiatives to inspire kids to do this that or the other thing, but there’s never any follow-up to ensure that the things will be available to do when the little suckers grow up. Inspiration is just a sugar high without material investment and real work.
And like a sugar high, it can block and redirect impulses that might otherwise lead to a healthier diet. Many people will see a successful fly-by as an accomplishment, and to our gnat’s-focus culture, that means “done that, bring me the next shiny object, now!”. How will it help settle Mars to prematurely satisfy the hunger to do it? Take a teaspoon of sugar before dinner and see if you’re still starving.
And of course, much drama and public interest derives from the possibility of catastrophic failure. Awful on many levels. Just as awful as the chance that Felix Baumgartner could have cratered the desert. That’s the nature of world-class stunts. As far as crass calculations of the effect of calamity on the prospects for Mars settlement, sure, not good either. Enough said, except, maybe, is it worth it?
There’s the inevitable argument that this is as good as it gets so shut up and accept it. It’s worth asking, if this is as good as it gets, whether it’s worth doing at all?