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Where we're going, we don't need roads

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It's with perhaps a bit of irony that my Internet reading today went from Starfleet vessels to the possibility of finding life on Mars. One makes the argument for space exploration and colonization, and the other, for some, against.

Look, I'm no astrobiologist. I have enough trouble understanding — in real world terms — concepts like "silicone-based" life. But I fail to see how finding life on Mars could be anything less than extraordinary.

The arguments generally run in the "it's too expensive and thus a waste of money" vein. But let's face it: whether we're alone in this universe or not, someday, by sheer necessity, we're going to have to get off this rock. A couple billion years from now, when the sun grows to be a red giant and engulfs the planet Earth, it's a safe bet we'd rather not be around for it. (Notwithstanding the pessimistic view that mankind is unlikely to still be around anyway.)

There are many benefits to exploring Mars and its possibility for life. The first is raw resources, which we're going to need for both colonization and further exploration. The second is more profound: if life once existed on Mars, why is there none now? Or if life still exists on Mars, why hasn't it evolved past the microbial stage? What, then, makes Earth so unique that mankind is (currently, at least) the ultimate and dominate species?

How will this life affect us? Will it be toxic to us? Benign? Nutritional? Or will the microbes we'll inevitably bring with us decimate the fauna much like small pox in the New World?

Yes, space exploration is expensive, and travel prohibitively so. Technology for the safe, expedient and efficient transfer of resources and people is in its infancy at best. So why bother? If it's too expensive, why should we care?

To me, interstellar spaceflight as a human achievement is a direct corellary of terrestial flight. For tens of thousands of years it was believed man was not meant to fly, and for tens of thousands of years that was correct. But little by little, bit by bit, knowledge was accumulated, knowledge of topics like aerodynamics and propulsion, and through trial and error, that by the beginning of the twentieth century powered flight suddenly became a reality. And no less than a half-century later, space flight, too, was a reality. While to Leonard Da Vinci flight was theoretical but impossible, so too is space travel to us today. It will be through a great deal of perseverence and perhaps a little faith that one day the impossible will be possible.

So I believe, much like American history's manifest destiny, it is the destiny of mankind to one day move among the stars. Will it be like Star Trek? Probably not. But what a glorious road to travel it will be.