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We're (not) going to Mars

There’s a cynical attitude about a manned Mars mission that some people love to whip out. “We’re not going to Mars,” they’ll say. “It’s impossible. And stupid.”

“One, do you know how much radiation there is in space? NASA hasn’t solved that yet.”

“Two, Mars is a terrible place to live. It has practically no atmosphere, it’s unbelievably cold, and the soil is full of poisonous chemicals.”

“Even if we could send people to Mars, it would be absurdly expensive compared to robots that could do the same thing. And humans will bring bacteria that will contaminate Mars and ruin our chance to know whether there’s life there or not. The only reason to send people is our pride.”

“Also, everyone will go nuts in space on the way there. Do you know how long it takes to get to Mars? People will go insane, they just can’t take it. There have been experiments. Send robots.”

And so, the cynic appears both informed and intelligent. They know how the world really works. They can write New York Times editorials. They won’t be fooled by ridiculous emotional reasons to send people to Mars, because they’re too smart for stupid flags and worthless footprints.

It’s easy to be a cynic. You always have an answer, and it sounds like a smart one. It’s even correct, by default, until someone proves you wrong.

Rational optimism is harder.

I say “rational” optimism because there’s also a point of view that obviously we will go to Mars, because humans can and will achieve anything. While I’m more sympathetic to this position, it’s as empty as the cynical one.

As a rational optimist, your position rests on questions. Is the radiation in space really a problem? You have to read about it. Can NASA really commit to doing this? What if the first mission fails? What if robots really are better? How much will it really cost? Should we spend the money on something else? You have to investigate all these things and weigh them in your mind, and no matter what, your “I think we can probably do it” can always be dismissed with a confident “it can’t be done.”

Cynicism is the teenager of intellectual positions. I felt like such a smartypants as a teenager when I realized that sometimes people do things only for politics, or pride, or oil, or money.

Yes, people do things for these reasons. We do things for our pride, or because they feel good, or seem important, or distract us, or fill us with the thunder of a rocket launch, or bring tears with grainy broadcasts from the moon.

And so to the cynics, I would say that it’s not too late. Come over to the optimistic side, or at least the “there are a lot of problems to solve” side. A lot of smart people (who know everything that will make it hard) think it’s possible and rational to go to Mars.

And the joy of a stupid flag or a footprint is for you, too.


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