Monday, May 4, 2015

That People Want To Go To Mars Makes Me Sad And Angry

A proposed settlement from the Mars One website.

I know this will strike some readers as peculiar, but it makes me sad and angry that people want to go to Mars.

Let's start by looking at this New Yorker article, which certainly did nothing to challenge those feelings. Drawing on cases where ships got stuck in the ice, the story starts out with a discussion, of how harrowing -- and even fatal -- it can be to be shut up with a crew on a long voyage. The Mars trip, of course, will be much longer than the two months in 1898 that the Belgica spent trapped in Antarctic ice -- when people went crazy, developed debilitating melancholia, and died.

The piece goes on to describe a huge test being undertaken in Hawaii, where a specially selected small group of especially affable, especially fit, and especially cool-headed special young people are living in a special dome, 24-7 -- where they can't even communicate with the outside world in real time because they're trying to mimic conditions on a trip to Mars, where it's so far away even an email takes twenty minutes to get to its recipient.

To go to Mars will take eight months. But because of planetary motion, planning the trip home one confronts a dilemma: stay on Mars for a year-and-a-half, or spend more than a year getting home. Looming issues include: not driving one another crazy, not getting bored literally to death, putting up with weird food, not driving one another crazy, literally staying alive, staving off melancholy, and not driving one another crazy.

Everything about this makes me feel sad. Earth is so perfect -- why go somewhere else? And under such harsh conditions? Even though I know it's because we evolved here, it still kind of blows my mind the way Earth has everything we humans need for happiness. Air, water, plants, sunshine, tons of space, and lots of other people.

To me, leaving Earth is like leaving the Garden of Eden. And going to Mars is like leaving the Garden of Eden to go on a horrible trip in the most dangerous and oppressive conditions imaginable. Why would you do a thing like that? Who are these people?

Always in these cases you hear about the idea that if climate change ruins Earth, we're going to need somewhere else to go. I find this idea seriously troubling. Really? The reaction to the possibility that we've ruined our entire planetary home is just "oh, well, guess we'll need another one?" Can't we spend that time and energy preserving our lovely home planet instead of making plans to move? The idea that we're going to go leave a bunch of garbage on a new planet is kind of infuriating.

I realize this is a dark thought, but part of me feels like if we humans screw up that badly, we should just let it go. Let the cockroaches and bacteria repopulate Earth with some new, hopefully improved, evolutionary products. We had a good run.

Anyway, the other thing you hear about Why Mars has a vague reference to some supposedly essentially aspect of human nature that makes us want to find new places and "discover" and colonize them.

Always, there are analogies with going to unexplored parts of Earth. In the New Yorker article, someone is quoted as saying, "It’s hard to say when, but we will go with humans to Mars ... It’s like humans exploring parts of the earth we didn’t know. We’re made that way."

Am I the only one for whom these analogies feel creepy? I mean, a lot of the "exploring" and "discovering" that "humans" did of the earth was actually one group of people moving in on and colonizing and brutalizing another. Not that I'm worried about potential Martians -- but just to say, the impulse to "explore," historically, was often not an impulse of curiosity but rather an impulse of domination.

Looking at it that way, no, "we" aren't "made that way." Yes, some people and some cultures seem to have a thing for priding themselves on "Doing Important Things," where doing novel or physically challenging things seems to get more points for some reason I've never been able to understand.

But other people seem happy at home. They create food, or pictures, or stories -- or they just sit around taking care of kids and gardening and drinking tea. Seriously, given the effect we're having on Earth and on other people, it would seem the homebodies are the ones we should be struggling to imitate, not the conquerors of new lands.

Of course, at the end of the day, people who want to go to Mars are going to go to Mars, and my opinion doesn't really matter. The picture at the top is a depiction of a proposed Mars One settlement -- where people will live out the rest of their days, because Mars One is proposing one way trips to Mars

It astonishes me that someone could look at that picture and think, 'Ooh, I want to go live there!" But obviously people do.


thefringthing said...

I've read enough science fiction novels to be in love with the idea of sending humans to Mars, even though it doesn't seem like a great use of resources. Plus that robot is so cute:

I'll be surprised if Mars One ever gets off the ground, though: I know one of the 100 finalists, but I haven't talked to him about it.

Patricia Marino said...

That rover is so cute! Plus, I read in the news today that they've just figured out how to make espresso in space. So, there's that.

Dan Dennis said...

One moment you are saying the earth is so perfect, the next you are saying if something happens to destroy human kind on earth we should just be like, oh well, let the cockroaches have it.

Sooner or late mankind is going to have to leave earth in order to survive - at the latest when the sun expands and engulfs the earth but probably sooner. If you want human kind to live on - which you presumably would do otherwise you would not think the world like the garden of eden - then the sooner we make progress in understanding and exploring space, the more chance we have of surviving...

Anonymous said...

Is there a philosophically robust objection to the 'let the cockroaches have it' view?