Editor’s Note: This piece first ran on October 4, 2016. But, in light of NASA’s 2020 Mars rover initiative, and in honor of Father’s Day—and this awesome story about Jesse (a great dad) and his dad (also a great dad)—I couldn’t help but run it back.
I can’t recall exactly when my father discovered bumper stickers. What I do know is that by the time I’d graduated from college, he had already collected quite the menagerie of these things on the rear of his Toyota Echo. Some of the stickers were standard liberal fare, like his Kerry/Edwards 2004 sticker. Others, though, were anything but standard. In fact, many of the stickers weren’t purchased but actually created – ex nihilo – by my father through cafepress.com.
The most infamous bumper sticker designed by my father for my father (BMFFMF) was without question:
NO GO MARS, NO GO WARS
For some context, this bumper sticker was made back during the George W. Bush presidency—after Bush had led the U.S. into several wars and became one of the biggest proponents of sending people to Mars. It’s hard to fault my father for just choosing the opposite side of W. on every issue he could. Nine times out of ten, it was a winning strategy.
That said, I have at least two problems with this “motto.” First, and most glaringly, Mars and Wars don’t rhyme. My second problem is with the content. “No Go Wars” I can totally get behind. But “No Go Mars” is a de facto rallying cry for those who oppose serious efforts to send people to the red planet. And I am definitely not in that camp.
Why am I bringing this up now? Because last week Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, unveiled his company’s plan for launching the first manned flight to Mars within a decade, and his vision of having a million colonists on Mars in another 50 years or so.
For those already excited about colonizing Mars – Musk’s presentation was thrilling. Those who are less jazzed about it might change their tune upon learning that the plan includes something that has been dubbed, at least informally, “the Big Fucking Rocket.”
Needless to say, there are a lot of questions and some serious challenges to Musk’s vision. Of course, Elon Musk isn’t just any CEO with any old company. Musk is the guy who built Tesla, the electric car company, from scratch, after building a rocket company from scratch. A company that makes rockets that do this:
If it can be done, it’s hard to argue anyone is more capable than Musk.
For folks in the “No Go Mars” camp, the issue of what we can do takes a backseat to what we should do. After all, getting people to Mars is really, really expensive. What do we gain by channeling billions upon billions of dollars into traveling to what is, at best, EarthLite? Even the ambassador of space geeks everywhere, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, thinks our efforts would be better spent fixing the planet we currently have, rather than starting from scratch on a whole new one. Bill Nye, for his part, wonders who exactly would volunteer to spend their lives on Mars given that it’s about as inviting as Antarctica.
Reasonable concerns, and yet they miss some larger points. In my view, there are at least three pretty good arguments for taking Musk and other Mars enthusiasts seriously (the “Go Mars” camp, if you will).
This is one of Musk’s primary arguments for colonizing Mars and eventually other planets in our solar system and beyond. Rather than belabor the point, let’s consider this analogy:
Humans are to the Earth as
Data is to a Hard Drive.
And what do we do with data that we consider important? We back it up. Thus,
Starting a new civilization on Mars is like backing up your hard drive.
When you stop and consider that extinction on earth is the rule and not the exception, this logic starts to feel more compelling. Even if we don’t fry ourselves with a runaway greenhouse effect or wipe our species out in a nuclear armageddon, there is some asteroid out there just waiting to give us a piece of its mind. And then…kaput.
It is likely that some kind of life would survive, but it might be billions of years before another human-like creature appears again. On the other hand, if we have a backup civilization on Mars, we could start recolonizing Earth as soon as everything settled back down on our home planet.
One can only assume that most cities have at least two different Starbucks on every street corner for similar reasons.
If you think humans are the superest-most-special things ever devised by the universe and we should do everything to preserve them, then the backup argument makes a lot of sense. But there are many folks who don’t really buy into it. Species go extinct, just like individuals eventually die. For these folks, the present is the priority, which means we ought to make Earth the best damn planet it can be and stop worrying about some hypothetical extinction event far off in the future.
I’m quite sympathetic to this view. I don’t doubt we’ll find a way to survive global warming and similar manmade threats to human existence. In the long run, I believe humans will survive and even thrive on Earth, as we do.
The rest of life on Earth? I’m not sure they’ll fare as well. The problem is, we humans are curious beings and just can’t help but mess with every little thing around us. But sometimes our curiosity runs smack into our ethics.
Our curiosity killed the cat. And the buffalo, and the dodo bird and 90 percent of life in the sea.
The Let It Go argument for going to Mars is basically, we just need to leave the rest of life here on Earth alone. We’ve tried being better, but it’s not working. We’ve done denial, anger, bargaining and depression. We need to move on to acceptance.
If we want the rest of life to thrive here on earth, we need to walk, or in this case, blast, away.
Here’s the thing, we know we have the ability to dramatically remake worlds – so why not put that talent to better use, remaking worlds that are currently boring and rocky, instead of fucking with sea turtles and baby polar bears?
Beyond the benefits for future humanity, the argument for putting people on Mars is simple. It’s exciting.
Innovation, for the most part, has gotten stale. Fifty years ago Bell Atlantic brought us the transistor, and it changed everything. Today we have Facebook, bringing us..wait for it…Facebook Live.
SpaceX, though? They want to transport mankind to an entirely different planet. They want to build Big Fucking Rockets that carry Big Fucking Spaceships into space. They want to make us an interplanetary species.
Maybe Musk is on a fool’s errand. Maybe he will never be able to reach his lofty goals. At least he’s trying to do something exciting. Something awesome in the fullest meaning of the word.
For what it’s worth, Elon, I’m inspired. Dad, I’ve got a new bumper sticker that I think you should make – if not for yourself, then perhaps for your son:
LET’S GO MARS, THEN GO STARS
It’s simple, it’s inspirational, AND it rhymes!