Every once in a while, I hear someone talk about his or her “bucket list,” a term that I hold as yet another unfortunate example of the long list of human experiences being quantified, packaged and sold as a commodity. Checklists aside, however, it’s always fascinating to hear what people hope to accomplish before they die: climb a mountain, go skydiving, swim with dolphins (or sharks), visit a distant place, whatever.
My own ebbing desire for the standard bucket list items might have something to do with my choice of occupation; one of the perks of being a writer (and reader) is that you can do lots of things through your imagination. Virtual reality, the old fashioned way. To be clear, if someone offered me a free trip to Europe or Japan, I’d jump at the opportunity. But I can’t think of anything I’d put on my “bucket list,” except maybe to see a grandchild born, plus one other thing that doesn’t really involve me directly—I want to see humans land on Mars.
After a long dormancy, public interest in this subject has been rekindled, mainly because of the efforts of SpaceX, the private rocket company that aims to lead the way to a manned Mars mission in the next decade. Also worthy of mention are National Geographic, which two months ago debuted its six-part television series Mars, featuring a novel blend of documentary and fiction, and the non-profit Mars One Foundation, which in conjunction with Mars One Ventures, its for-profit partner, aims to to establish a permanent settlement on Mars. Mars One Ventures trades on the Frankfurt stock exchange under the symbol KCC, and is seeking to fund missions, in part, with revenue from a reality TV show, which would follow prospective astronauts through the application and training process. Such are the times we live in, but I wouldn’t invest the retirement money just yet.
Growing up, space exploration seemed like the biggest, most important thing anyone could be doing, and I sometimes wondered why we’d seemed to go backwards, from traveling to a distant heavenly body, to being satisfied with the space shuttle, a giant space bus, going back and forth from Earth orbit. In the comics I drew as a kid, the space shuttles were always a bit more exciting than reality—there was typically a pesky alien or stray asteroid that needed to be addressed via retro-fitted laser cannons—but the actual dream of landing humans on Mars kept getting pushed back.
It seems that one way or another, a human mission will embark sometime in the next 20 years. And for me, the sooner, the better. I don’t necessarily want to go to Mars myself, though there have been times when my wife would have happily one-upped Ralph Kramden of Honeymooners fame, and instead of stopping at the moon, shout, “Bang! Zoom! Straight to Mars!” I want to see someone step foot on the Red Planet, because for all of the scientifically valid arguments about the need to colonize other planets to ensure humanity’s long-term survival, the greater need for all of us on Earth is something in the here and now—something hopeful to rally behind, together.
Unlike the intense competition of the U.S.-Russian space race, a push for Mars could see nations that are indifferent to each other, if not outright confrontational, banding together for a common cause—to say nothing of healing the divisions within our own country.
Back in the early days of the space program, we had test pilots and military men, from which came the quiet grace and dignity of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin’s enthusiasm for exploration and science, and the recently deceased John Glenn, who took his talents to Washington, and after 24 years in the Senate, rather tellingly, made a beeline back into space.
Elevating people to the level of heroes or role models is dangerous, but it’s human nature to do it. Today, in lieu of explorers, we maintain a never-ending stream of athletes and celebrities to be our heroes.
Astronauts embody the best of us (with the exception of that one love-crazed, adult diaper-wearing incident a decade ago). Today, they hail from a variety of backgrounds—team players who are highly educated across several disciplines, but can also think on their feet. They have the same spirit of exploration, are still willing to risk their lives, and see the sacrifices of leaving behind family and friends as necessary hardships in order to further the reach of humanity. Recognizing people who think in terms of “we” instead of “I,” and who spend their time pondering the fate of the human race many generations hence would make for a refreshing change from the narcissism that’s so prevalent in our culture.
So, yes, a Mars landing or bust. I think I’d feel a profound sense of disappointment if, in my final moments, I knew that we hadn’t yet accomplished that. Conversely, with a successful human landing, I’d probably feel a great sense of pride, hope and excitement for the future. I think I could live—or, more accurately, die—with that.