Verbum Ultimum: A Pale Red Dot

Reaching Mars would mark a new era of progress.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 3/3/17 12:45am

During his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump said that, “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.” He’s right: we’ve reached a moment of scientific achievement where reaching Mars is possible, where greater exploration of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter is around the corner. Our government, in partnership with private industry, should engage with the scientific community to create a doctrine of exploration and advancement. The future of humanity involves advancement in space alongside continued focus on real and pressing economic, environmental and justice-related concerns on Earth.

The United States faces pressing problems. Despite large economic growth under former President Barack Obama, we are still in some ways stuck in the doldrums of the 2008 recession. Environmental issues abound; here in Hanover, we have experienced an unusually warm winter, and around the world the problems of climate change remain all too real. The shadow of fearful protectionism has emerged again in our political discourse. One in five American children goes hungry, our veterans lack sufficient health services and political and social divisions run deep.

So why space? Why now? “[W]e may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence," Harvard professor Steven Pinker has said. He’s right: violence has decreased — despite an uptick in religious violence in recent years — and the average human is more prosperous now than ever before. We have a unique opportunity to address both problems here on Earth and our reasonable desire for exploration, to seize the potentialities offered by the solar system.

Then there is the question of Trump’s nationalism. Too often, in years past, space has served as a proxy, a war in which science is used as a pawn for the clash of great powers. We do not wish to repeat the 20th century space race, when the citizens of the Soviet Union starved while their government invested billions in the skies above. Yet, we also see that we gained much from this time: we have GPS, satellite technology, much of our internet service and innumerable scientific knowledge thanks to our push into space. If the United States and the Soviet Union had partnered during the space race, rather than fought, think what could have been accomplished.

That is the sort of push into space that Trump ought to pursue: one that can inspire those here in America in concert with international partners.

But this will not be inexpensive. FiveThirtyEight recently reported that reaching Mars — while technologically feasible right now — would require “a boatload of cash.” According to the Mars Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to reaching the red planet, $30 billion is “the low end” of cost estimates. Certainly, an endeavor to land humans on the red planet would cost tens — and possibly hundreds — of billions. But it may very well be worth it.

And thus, we set our sights on the heavens. This year marks the 48th anniversary of Apollo 11’s successful landing on the Moon. The next step is clear: Mars.

Space exploration will not solve our problems. It will not cure disease, end homelessness or stop wars. What it may do, however, is unite Americans — and people around the world — in a common scientific endeavor that could foster hope and lead to a higher degree of global unity. There is also an opportunity for a new kind of public-private partnership, one that incorporates businesses like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin while still relying heavily on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the government-backed scientific solutions that have served our country well in the past and that continue to work effectively when adequately funded.

Trump has expressed a wish to go to space, and so far neither he nor his administration has filled in the details, though waiting for the president to provide policy details has not usually been a rewarding endeavor.

Additionally, administration officials have stated that the new push for human space exploration is largely based around a desire for “the large-scale economic development of space.” Economic development in space could be a good thing. There may be minerals to be mined from asteroids and massive opportunities for space-based solar energy. Many more possibilities will assuredly present themselves as we “boldly go” where no person has gone before. However, the first priority in space must be scientific advancement. We can look toward the ways in which our entire species can advance and open up new frontiers of science. We know, from the example of the International Space Station, that we can develop strong international ties in space.

It is also critical that we not only focus on engineering and physical sciences when considering the possibilities of space exploration. This is not just a scientific idea, but one that all disciplines can embrace. There are philosophical, legal, governmental and artistic challenges presented by space as well — and that means opportunities for many people. We must address these issues together, incorporating the best and brightest from around the world, as we become an extra-planetary race.

Space exploration — and a landing on Mars — is a global goal and presents an opportunity for the sort of American unity that Trump has so far failed to create — and in fact has worked against.

In 1990, the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote “Pale Blue Dot.” The book includes a discussion of the vast potentialities for humankind in space. All those years ago, Sagan wrote: “Maybe it’s a little early — maybe the time is not quite yet — but those other worlds, promising untold opportunities, beckon. Silently, they orbit the Sun, waiting.” Now, for the first time ever, we have the chance to reach the pale red dot.

The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.