The Mars Children

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I am a moon child.

In 1961, a little over year before I was born, President John F. Kennedy made his oft quoted pronouncement, setting the national goal to launch a manned lunar expedition.  On my seventh birthday, Neil Armstrong and others made tracks on the moon for the first time.

The country stood transfixed as the lander slowly lowered onto the lunar surface.  Watching the horizon of the moon slowly rise in front of the camera reminds me today of a man slowly, tentatively, stepping forward onto untested ground in an unknown place.  Walter Cronkite commented that we had set foot on a distant planet.  Watching it on YouTube I could feel the excitement…and see Cronkite remove his glasses to dry his eyes.  We had grown to become an interplanetary species and we liked it.

Now the world has moved on to other things.  Why have we as a people mostly lost interest in space exploration?

One of the things that we who write fiction must do to make our stories engaging to the reader is to build heroes that folks can identify with.  So why is it that so few people care about space?  It is because robotic probes and rovers, for all of their cost-effectiveness and recent accomplishments in pushing forward the boundaries of explored space, simply make poor heroes!  They carry with them less than 1% of the excitement caused by flesh and blood people doing bold new things!

I listened to Kennedy’s proclamation today and thought to reword it slightly, and then restate it for our times…

“I believe that this (planet) should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a (hu)man on (Mars) and returning him (or her) safely to the Earth. No single space project…will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important…and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

No nation on Earth has the ability to fly to Mars today, but this nation, or a partnership of nations, could grow into the job if aggressive goals are set, funded and pursued.  The International Space Station is a remarkable achievement both in technology and in peaceful cooperation between countries of varying interests.  It is humankind’s first spacecraft assembled in orbit and the largest, longest occupied space outpost ever constructed.  The technology base of all of the participating nations, and by extension the rest of the world, benefits today from the inventions necessary to build the Space Shuttle and the ISS and place them in orbit, and the people of Earth continue to benefit from work performed in space.  The scientific accomplishments waiting for us over the next 8 or 9 years through operation of the ISS will bring us ever forward and closer to the goal of doing the same thing on a distant planet, but we don’t have to wait for them.  They should support our tech base as we go, not be used as a crutch to hold us back!  The ISS is great, but humans have flown in circles, in Low Earth Orbit, looking down, for far too long!  The Moon Children of yesterday need to fight to make the upcoming generation the Mars Children of tomorrow.

As the nations of the Earth glance around, searching for a leader in a quest for Mars, who better than the world’s leading superpower to step forward and say, “We stand committed to exploring, inhabiting, and developing the rest of our solar system!  This starts with a human setting foot on the planet Mars by 2020.”  Leadership has its own rewards.  Would we abdicate this role to another, after achieving so much over the past five decades?  If we say, “Mars in 2020” then the world will flock around us to join the effort.  The UK and Italy, ever eager to ally with us in times of peril, would immediately jump in the pool with us, as would France.  Our new friends in the former Soviet bloc would join in as well.  Developing nations like India and Brazil would be all too eager to use it as a chance to advance their own tech bases faster.  Along the way, as we solve the very serious problems inherent in this challenge, the new innovations will combine with others so that they feed on each other to the continued betterment of the world and the human condition.

It won’t be necessary to skip over the Moon either…that is just a stone along the path.  “We’ve already done that” doesn’t have to mean, “we don’t need to do it again”.  It should mean, “that step will be the easy part”.

The current policy of, “Lets let others go to the Moon and see what technologies come our way for a trip to Mars” is a path to mediocrity.  With it we sit, with our butts in the dirt, and dream our opportunities away, pining for something we can’t achieve because we refuse to stand up and get busy.  We must not choose the easy path that will deny our children and grandchildren the opportunities that wait just beyond their grasp…they deserve better from us!

There is an election year coming up.  Change is in the air.  Private enterprise is finally engaged to lower cost to orbit, and public disappointment with current policy stands poised to make space an election year issue.  Our nation will come up on 2012 with the combined recent loss of both our next-generation launch vehicle plans and our current generation launch vehicle program, each in successive years, fresh on our minds.  That double let down is so tangible we can feel it, and it sets our footing for a change in direction.  President Obama needs Florida to win, and he won’t get it.  He’ll become the first President ever to lose his job because of mismanagement of space policy.

Moon and Space Shuttle Children Unite!  Call your Senators and Congressional representatives.  Write your favorite Presidential primary candidate.  Together we can make Mars a national priority, make a hero out of another Neil Armstrong and make another Walter Cronkite take off his glasses!  Let’s put red dirt on someone’s boots in 2020!

I feel a change in the wind, and it blows towards Mars!

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~ by Bill Housley on August 11, 2011.

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