By Leon Kolankiewicz
November 7, 2016
In a recent article for CNN, President Obama reiterated the grand goal he first set back in 2010 for the United States to send a mission to Mars by the 2030s. The president wrote that:
“I still have the same sense of wonder about our space program that I did as a child. It represents an essential part of our character — curiosity and exploration, innovation and ingenuity, pushing the boundaries of what's possible and doing it before anybody else.”
I share those sentiments. Obama is right to promote NASA and the space agenda – both public and private – and Mars is certainly the most fitting destination in our solar system. It is a challenging stretch but a feasible one. While the red planet is not exactly hospitable to earthlings, at least its environment is by far the least hostile of any other planet or their minions of moons orbiting our Sun.
As with past and present developments in the space program, preparing for and conducting the Mars mission will push the frontiers of technology.
It also has the potential to add to our understanding and appreciation of Spaceship Earth, that compelling metaphor coined back in 1879 by the American writer Henry George, who wrote: “It is a well-provisioned ship, this on which we sail through space.”
In 1965, during the launch of the modern environmental movement, former American presidential candidate and diplomat Adlai Stevenson II popularized the term in a famous speech before the United Nations, remarking that:
“We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. space program began capturing evocative photos of Spaceship Earth from its moon missions that depicted a breathtaking blue, brown, and white planet against the black void of outer space. For the first time in all of history, humanity was given a view of our entire common home, in a single image, within the cosmos. This abode, this oasis of life, appeared fragile and finite.
On February 1, 1990, as the Voyager I space probe headed out of the solar system on a truly endless voyage, it snapped a photo of Earth from a distance of nearly 4 billion miles away (about 40 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun). In the resulting image, this tiny spot, less than a pixel in size, inspired astronomer Carl Sagan to reflect upon the “pale blue dot” on which “everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.”
Those intrepid explorers who journey to Mars in another sort of spaceship and who attempt to establish a base there will have to be superlative stewards and guardians of their environment and resources, far better than we humans on Earth have been to date. Simply put, if they don’t care for and cherish their air, water, waste, food, and energy, they will perish.
Spaceship Earth will not perish in spite of the abuses to which we humans have subjected it. It will continue to spin on its axis and circle around the sun for billions of years to come, with or without its human passengers and crew.
But the biosphere is taking a beating from human indifference and excess and it is this biosphere that distinguishes Spaceship Earth from all other lifeless planets in the solar system. Even if other biospheres exist elsewhere in the galaxy, and so far we have no confirmation of this, ours is unique even at this vast scale, and it is imperiled.
Let’s hope that embarking in a spaceship on a historic mission to Mars, writing an exciting new chapter in our history, will encourage humans to nurture the fragile environment and conserve the limited resources not just of the Mars spaceship, but of Spaceship Earth as well. Our survival is at stake in both cases.
Leon Kolankiewicz is a Senior Writing Fellow with Californians for Population Stabilization,
an environmental scientist and planner and can be reached at [email protected].