The universe is an Empire of Extremes. If you made a model of the cosmos where Earth — wonderful, comfortable Earth — is a grain of sand, then all the hostile, impossibly extreme places would be all the beaches on our planet.
Yet it’s in our myths and collective ambitions to go outward and try to spend as much time as possible in the Great Bummer that is the cosmos.
Bummer? Sounds too pessimistic, right? That’s because NASA has romanticized space travel for so long, and sci-fi has shown us merrily breezing through space a la Star Trek for over a half century now. And there’s been no voice, none at all, saying, whoa, wait a minute — it’s COLD out there! And you can’t breathe! And except for Venus and Mars it takes years to get from one planet to the next, and millennia to get from one star to the next. Are you nuts? I’m staying put!
But maybe I’m too much a coward. Being a pilot and owning a plane for decades is the farthest I’ve dared to venture off our sweet-hallowed surface. Yet, they’ve actually found people who have trained for years in the can-do military credo, men and women who say: Go ahead, shoot me anywhere!
A vacuum? No problem! Air is overrated. We’ll just fill up this spacecraft here. Four years to get to Jupiter’s moons? No prob, people routinely kill that much time in the can after being busted for dope. Radiation belts? Okay, we’ll just line this baby with the right material, like insulating a house in Minnesota. And what about the Mission Selection Chief choosing the wrong companion for you? Imagine being locked up in a tiny space with someone who voted for you-know-who?
Okay, let’s get serious. We all know what the public wants NASA or private companies like Space-X to do. Send people to Mars. Nobody cares about returning to the Moon despite all the periodic talk about doing that. I think the public mood is been there, done that. And a brief landing on some small asteroid, while easier than Mars, wouldn’t get many excited.
Everyone wants to vicariously visit Mars, even though the risks (like an unexpected appendicitis or breast cancer and the consequent death of one of the astronauts being a year from an appropriate medical facility) would maybe permanently chill the mood. But sending astronauts to Mars also creates a rarely-discussed negative side of its own, which is: convincing many people there’s a potential back-up planet in case we mess this one up too badly.
Happy-face reporting, along the lines of the bunny-hopping images we got from the Apollo guys on the Moon, would make many ignore that the Red Planet has no breathable air. No life companionship or its sensory accompaniments like birdsong or colorful leaves or the smell of pine. It’s a barren hostile place far less hospitable than Antarctica, where no one is lining up to colonize even though you can at least breathe there.
The bottom line for this astronomer, who has loved observing the universe all his life, is that we were each fashioned by planet Earth, and our home world dwells within us more deeply than we know. Human space travel is a great adventure, wonderful for explorers to do. But let’s never pretend there’s another potential home for us. We’d feel like aliens. The toll on our spirits, on our souls, might be devastating. Loneliness and a strange uneasiness might accompany much of our Martian time, with deep psychological problems of unknown etiology. Far fetched? Just picture placing any creature in an environment far removed from its home — a condor in a cage, a captured wildcat in a zoo. Watch it weirdly pace back and forth day after day.
When I see the Space-X publicity folks announce their plans, my overarching take-away is that we must be gentler with our planet.