To the editor,
I wanted to provide just a little further commentary on some of the issues discussed by Andrew Cutshall in his Feb. 25 column “Stop the race to Mars.” To start with, Andrew was right to call out Mars One for behaving, and I believe this is the scientific term, sketchtastic. I don’t think the Dutch Company would be so cruel as to take people’s money and then maroon them on Mars, mostly because I don’t think they’ll get that far. Mars is certainly not an impossible destination, but it is impossible for a private group with no launch vehicle, no descent vehicle and no means of transport between planets.
Private spacefaring enterprises are an exciting development, and companies like SpaceX have proven their worth and their ability to build on past government successes. But for all of SpaceX’s ability, private spacemen can only go so far; about 250 kilometers above our homeworld to be exact. There, in low Earth orbit, they are simply walking the well-trodden path of NASA and other government space agencies. Governments must tackle the frontier before private settlers follow.
Which brings us to Andrew’s “profound issues concerning the very aspect of our desire to colonize Mars or any other planet for that matter.” There is little reason to worry about a “geo-political dilemma.” Space is not entirely the Wild West. There are international laws governing the bodies orbiting our star, including the Outer Space Treaty, which designates the Moon and other celestial objects as immune to claims of sovereignty. For an Earthly comparison, we could consider the status of the Moon and Mars similar to that of Antarctica or international waters.
So, no, Americans do not own the Moon; humans do.
As for colonizing Mars and “exploiting its natural resources,” the word “colonization” is an Earthling word with Earthling baggage. With no native population and an environment that cannot sustain life and therefore can’t be harmed, the potential colonization of Mars is incomparable to the disastrous colonization projects that have taken place among the nations of Earth.
Even so, the Outer Space Treaty covers this issue as well, declaring that spacefaring nations shall avoid harmful contamination of celestial bodies. To that end, NASA probes typically undergo strenuous sterilization before they are launched to avoid introducing microscopic Earthlings to an alien environment. While there is little reason to fear contaminating Mars, Europa is a much trickier situation. Orbiting Jupiter, Europa likely has a vast ocean beneath its icy surface that could easily harbor aquatic extraterrestrial life.
If life exists on Europa, steps must be taken to avoid contamination before any landing attempt is made there; we should probably not allow the Earthling habit of destroying environments to extend beyond Earth. This dilemma is likely to be discussed more and more as Europa becomes the new focus of America’s space exploration efforts. NASA and the Obama Administration have called for a $30 million mission to the Jovian moon; just a flyby, no landing, but NASA hopes that will be the next step.
Finally, there is Andrew’s claim that “we must begin caring about all the problems we have here on Earth before we start gallivanting around the cosmos.” It’s a common argument whenever there is a national discussion about space exploration: why should we waste resources on spaceships when we have poverty and hunger and war? Putting aside the fact that if we wait for our Earthly problems to go away before we explore the cosmos, we’ll just never explore the cosmos, it’s important to remember how little we actually “waste” on spaceships.
Consider the International Space Station. It’s probably the most expensive thing ever constructed, and certainly the most expensive thing ever constructed in space. According to “The Atlantic”, operating the ISS costs about $8 million a day. That seems like a lot. But it’s also about the same as the cost of operating a single U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle group. We have ten of them out at sea right now when nine would probably do just fine. Consider the possibility that in place of a fleet of warships in the ocean, America could have fleet of scientific research vessels in the cosmos. The Mars One mission is a gimmick, and most likely a scam, but that’s no reason to “stop the race” to Mars or anywhere else in the heavens.
Jesse Bethea is freelancer at ColumbusUnderground.com and an Audio/Visual Technician at PSAV PResentation Services. Bethea was previously a columnist for The New Political.