Burning Your Spaceship

>> Wednesday, September 2, 2009

So, I'm distracted another day from the bare necessities of education because I read an editorial in the New York Times yesterday that really threw me for a loop: One-Way Ticket to Mars. The notion, proposed by this article, is that we could develop human spaceflight to get to Mars (and the moon, too, incidentally, though they don't mention it) if we didn't have to worry about bringing the crewmembers back.

Yeah, that was my reaction. Now, he mentioned giving it some thought before going with the gut reaction and I've done that (my gut reaction wasn't complimentary). He is also correct when he says a one way trip is drastically easier and less challenging than a round trip. That saves consumables for round trip and two different "landing" vehicles ( you only need one), plus all the propulsion to come back and leave the surface of Mars. And you and I both know that getting volunteers would be no problem - people would still be lined up around the block (especially scientists) to go even if we cheerfully told them they only had so much time before they'd asphyxiate when they got there. Oh, yes, it would be way easier.

But, no, I think this is an abysmally bad idea.

What really surprised me is that I talked to my boss and others and they were kind of shrugging. My boss pointed out that Cortez scuttled the ships when he hit the shores of Mexico (and sent me a religious website that extolled the virtue of committing, come heck or high water, to something with the implication that the devil is the one that incites one to plan an escape route which, I suppose puts Cortez on the side of God. Um, hard for me to see him as the protagonist, but I digress.). My boss also noted that the scruples that would undoubtedly make such an option ugly to us might not bother the Russians or the Chinese - which would give them an opportunity to leapfrog past us.

So, why, besides my innate safety-first mentality, makes me think this is a bad idea?

Well, first, as much as I'd like to admire the foresight of Cortez, he was an asshole who was putting his men in a position where they had to defeat and conquer the Aztecs or die trying. That was pure unadulterated greed and the quest for glory that came with a pretty big price tag for the natives. He wasn't starting a colony - he was conquering a nation.

But the rationale isn't comparable anyway. There is food, water, air in Mexico. You just have to work with the natural resources. Nowhere in the solar system can we say that except for the surface of our own planet. Historically, an escape hatch, a path of retreat has been the difference between survival and failure many times - with the usual result of failure to have an escape route being fatal. In other words, having no retreat is stupid. Going somewhere where you can't even survive outside without one goes a step beyond stupid.

Secondly, although I understand people would be willing to sacrifice themselves for the opportunity to explore other planets, suicide missions are the sort of thing one does as a last resort. If we were facing a cataclysm, taking a one way trip makes sense - a chance to get something when catastrophe is your only other alternative. But we're not.

And, here's the next question - what are we hoping to accomplish? If we are really to conquer the stars, we're going to need to figure out how to go where we want and come back. When we went to the moon, we walked and brought back, not just astronauts, but all they saw and heard and felt and learned about wandering about another planet. We brought back pieces of our other planet. We learned lessons about landing and taking off that we would never have learned if we'd just sent them one way. We had to do it right to do it at all.

And that's it. I'm not interested in climbing Mount Everest 'cause it's there. I want to go out into space with a plan. I want to go out there for good, not as a publicity stunt or to gather a few data points before biting down on my cyanide pill. I want to be there so I can use what I learned to go further, faster, smarter next time, to find a new horizon because I really beat this one.

We've already proved we know how to send things to Mars. Going with men means getting them back because that's the real achievement.

In my opinion.


  • skwguitar

    Ya no kidding. What would be the point - we already know we can just send something/someone to Mars. I mean, as much as I usually admire the "anti-hero" in literary and cinematic works, sending off an intelligent group of astronauts/scientists on a suicide mission just seems so irrational to me. That's not progress at all. It's too bad, because I've actually come to expect a lot better out of Lawrence Krauss, that guy is an award-winning writer.

    Nice read, as usual


  • Roy

    I agree, Steph. That's got to be the stupidest, most wasteful - and most inhuman - idea I've ever heard. People who think like that have no soul.

  • Jeff King

    Once i reach 60 years old i would be first inline.

    That would be one hell of a way to go, but most likely once i am that old i would probably not feel the way i do now.
    But in reality it is a horrible plan, and plain ridiculous to even consider throwing life’s away like that.
    But if a doc told me I had six months to live I would love to go, it would be a dream come true, to witness firsthand the universe.

  • Melissa

    I actually laughed, yesterday, when I first heard this. I mean the radiation alone there, would kill you in a short amount of time. Why would anyone want to live there? Then I thought there will be someone who wants to be famous, and go down in history, that would just be crazy enough to go along with it.

  • Dr Faustroll

    The contrarian view: the entire planet is on a suicide mission and doesn't particularly care.

    Put me with a group willing to do the same crazy shit that put people here from somewhere else to begin with, and it becomes quite attractive.

    Recorded human civilization in terms of how long life has been on the planet is the equivalent of less than the time it takes for a human egg to present itself. It seems logical that if life has any force and intends to perpetuate itself it would be driven to infect another host.

    I wasns't surprised when the survivors of collateral damage turned to suicide bombings as an effective strategy to combat Oceania. There are many people on this planet who no longer believe they have anything to live for.

    That's a difficult concept for the haves to grasp, but Peter Gabriel did a pretty good job of conveying the concept in Shoot Into The Light.

    Krauss seems to be putting a happy face on inevitability.

  • Bob Johnson

    Pick me, I'd go on a one way trip to Mars if that was all that was available, hello... it's frigging Mars,lol.

  • The Mother

    If all we want is to explore, we can send robots to do that. We have lots of experience with robots on Mars.

    I agree. The purpose of a manned mission is to BRING THINGS BACK--not just the men (women--you know what I mean), but the samples.

    Suicide missions make glamorous TV movies. Not so great in real life.

  • Phyl

    This is an absolutely obscene idea. The problem is that I don't see it as "inhuman" at all. Humans are more than willing to do this -- to other humans.

    I'd be very interested, Stephanie, in which of the people at work who shrugged about this idea would be willing to be the first volunteers.

    Gosh, it's always easy to volunteer someone else to die, isn't it? And convince them it's for some kind of "noble cause," blah blah blah blah.

    Funny, that really does sound like a religious rationale, doesn't it? Just convince enough sheep how great the idea is and how great they are for dying for you, and you can get rid of anybody you want. Grrrr.

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