TCS Daily


To Get To Mars, First Want To Get Off The Earth

By James Pinkerton - September 10, 2001 12:00 AM

First of two parts


What's the big deal about Mars? Why does it have such a claim on our spaced-out imagination? In the past we thought there might be life there, or maybe even intricate canals, or at least breathable air. Today, we know that Mars is far less hospitable, but as the continuing stream of sci-fi literature demonstrates, it still retains its grip on our imagination.

The latest example of Mars attraction is Robert Zubrin's First Landing, a speculative and provocative novel about the first men and women to touch down on Mars, in 2011. Zubrin is best known, of course, for his real-world efforts on behalf of space exploration, expressed in books such as The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, and Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization. And now he has written a tale that sci-fi legend Kim Stanley Robinson -- author of his own Mars trilogy -- describes as "a real page-turner."

Zubrin's book will help the space cause, but the stubborn indifference of so much of the population to space suggests the need for deeper inquiry, for going below the surface of popular culture. Perhaps we should consider the ideas of Michael Vlahos, who offers a scenario for space that may seem downbeat in the short run, but could prove profoundly uplifting in the long run.

Vlahos, who earned his Ph. D. in American history from the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University, has worked in or around almost every national security-related outfit in the U.S. government -- State, Defense, and the CIA. Currently he is a senior researcher at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, Md. If Zubrin can describe the technical specifications of how we might get to Mars, Vlahos can describe the historical preconditions that we might need before actually undertaking a mission to Mars. "We're thinking in the wrong box," says Vlahos in an interview. "The goal isn't to get to Mars, but rather to get off the earth."

Huh? Isn't that a distinction without much of a difference? After all, if humans leave earth, they have to go somewhere -- and, not counting the occasional stray comet, Mars is the second-closest object in the solar system. True enough, Vlahos says, but history shows that the defining characteristic of the greatest exploratory efforts is not that they had a specific goal, but rather those leading them had a general vision of outward-boundedness.

To gain perspective on the future of the space program, Vlahos looks to past earthly explorations, especially to those in the middle of the last millennium, when whole civilizations heaved themselves across oceans -- distances that were comparable in relative difficulty and expense to the distances that we, in the third millennium, confront as we gaze upward into space.

Vlahos identifies three criteria for exploration that shaped the exploratory cultures of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries:

First, they had the technology to get somewhere. The 15th century saw the introduction of the caravel, for example, the supership of the era. Renaissance vessels also made quantum leaps in their ability to navigate, thanks to compasses and astrolabes; moreover, they were better able to protect themselves on long voyages to uncertain places, thanks to improved gunnery.

Second, political entities were willing to make a huge initial commitment, as was Portugal, guided by Henry the Navigator, and Spain, led by Ferdinand and Isabella. In retrospect, the enormous wealth found in Aztec Mexico and Inca Peru makes such expansion seem as inevitable as it was profitable; yet prospectively, when seamen first puffed their sails out of Lisbon or Cadiz, the decision to go across uncharted oceans was daring indeed. But as Vlahos observes, the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, the last redoubt of the Byzantine Empire, in 1453 sent a shockwave through Christendom, inspiring Europeans to think, however indirectly, about other outlets for their energy. That is, if the east were cut off, then young men would go west, as did Columbus four decades later.

Third, mankind felt the need for what Vlahos calls "the mythic journey of becoming." That is the need for a journey that purifies and clarifies one's place in the world. This argument echoes the work of the anthropologist Joseph The Hero with a Thousand Faces Campbell, which is to say that it is simultaneously immediate and distant from our present-day sensibilities. It is immediate in that anyone who has read Campbell -- or at least watched the Bill Moyers miniseries on PBS -- knows that his interpretation of mythic archetypes is present in our daily lives. And yet Campbell's vision is distant, because contemporary culture seems to lack the inspiration to go on new mythic journeys of becoming -- at least in the physical world.

That was then. What about now? We might consider present-day circumstance through Vlahos' triple prism. Unfortunately, the Johns Hopkins scholar offers no quick fix amidst his long-term perspective. Yet within his three criteria we may yet espy the shape of better quests to come.

First, the technology. If we could get to the moon in 1969, we could surely get to Mars in a decade, just as Zubrin anticipates.

Second, the willingness to commit. Today, the "space race" seems as ancient as the Cold War itself. Yet the looming militarization of space could yet provoke countries into seizing strategic points in the High Frontier. Or perhaps some new discovery, of some old or new kind of wealth, will excite interest once again; on Friday, Reuters reported that a team of Hungarian scientists, having analyzed 60,000 photographs taken by Mars Global Surveyor probe, claims to have found evidence of living organisms on the Red Planet. The pictures showed indicators of life, similar to organisms found near Earth's South Pole, in thousands of dark dune spots dotting the Fourth Planet. True? False? Unclear? Stay tuned, because if life is found, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and the merely curious will be racing to get there.

Third, the "mythic voyage of becoming." Vlahos argues that the 17th century Pilgrims didn't really care where they ended up, so long as it was some place they could keep their religious culture intact. Indeed, at one time or another, prophets and followers of all great religions have gone on some far journey to discover themselves and their collective destiny. So could it be that some future spiritual group will seek out a New Jerusalem in space somewhere? Why not? After all, mobility -- the right to flee, if necessary -- has often been a workable guarantee of religious expression.

So does Vlahos think we'll get to Mars in a decade? Two decades? Longer? He is an historically minded pundit, not a prophet. "What's needed is a galvanizing idea so powerful that people possessed of that idea can't find an outlet for it here on earth. Then, just as Jesuits of five centuries ago pressured the Spanish government into sending them off to evangelize Latin America, so some zealous group in the future will make space travel happen." In other words, perhaps social and cultural circumstances aren't yet supporting a new star trek, but when they do, there'll be no stopping it.

Yet while Vlahos offers no miracle release from the sticky wicket of earth-boundedness, he offers some provocative ideas that could help recreate the preconditions that touched off earlier exploratory explosions.

We'll consider those next week.

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