Juvenal, that biting pundit of the Roman Empire, complained of weak leaders distracting the people with “panem et circenses” — bread and circuses. In our day, it’s moon bases and missions to Mars.
Europe is splintering. North Korea has gone full “Dr. Strangelove.” Disaster in Puerto Rico. Massacre in Las Vegas. Crickets chirping on Capitol Hill, where Republican promises go to die. With so much to be done and few plans for doing it, the people need to be distracted. So Vice President Mike Pence was trotted out last week to revive a long-dormant presidential commission and get American astronauts back into space.
Perhaps you thought our astronauts never left space. Haven’t they been space walking, repairing telescopes, performing experiments and making music videos up there for years? Turns out those missions take place in “low Earth orbit,” less than 350 miles from home. Millions of kids have ventured farther to attend college than our astronauts have traveled from Earth these past 45 years.
Though Pence’s commission is unlikely to tell you, there are very good reasons Americans, and other humans, abruptly stopped going deep into space. It’s deadly. It’s unnecessary. And to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there.
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Doubtless, Americans could return to the moon, and even stay there for a while. It would cost vast sums, but we have good credit and high tolerance for debt. The question is why. The moon is still the same dead, dusty desert we left in 1972. Ice-covered Antarctica and the Sarahan sands are both far more hospitable to human life than the moon.
A moon base makes zero sense on its own terms, so it’s pitched as a trampoline to Mars. Face it: The Red Planet has the best PR in the solar system. What Scientology is to creepy movie stars, Mars travel is to swashbuckling billionaires. Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have all set their sights on the fourth rock from the sun, with Musk saying he hopes to die there — “just not on impact.”
Boosterish scientists report that midday temperatures may reach a balmy 60-plus degrees on the Mars version of St. Tropez, but Musk better pack a heavy snowsuit to go with his Speedo. Having virtually zero atmosphere to hold the warmth, the planet cools off overnight to around 90 degrees below zero at the equator. The average temperature, according to NASA, is 81 below.
Still, a human traveler to Mars should make the most of its airless monotony, because there is no coming back. The long passage through the vacuum of space will expose astronauts to intense and prolonged bombardment by cosmic rays and unimpeded solar radiation — a death sentence for which NASA has no solution (though scientists continue to seek one).
What’s more, Mars is a dead end. As fatally desolate and brutal as the planet is, our celestial neighbor is the most habitable destination for many, many light years in any direction.
Science fiction can be seductive. Of course we want to boldly go where no one has gone before. But space exploration is a job for robots, not humans. Nature has adapted us exquisitely and precisely for life in one particular ecosystem in one remote corner of an incomprehensibly vast universe.
Other promoters of moon bases and Mars colonies are doomsday theorists, grimly laboring under the belief that humans are going to destroy the Earth and need to have a lifeboat ready. This is dangerous thinking. For all the troubles in our current home, they are small compared with the problems of living in a terrarium on a frozen rock under skies composed of 95 percent carbon dioxide.
The vast and murderous universe has conspired to maroon the human race — but what a wonderful island we’re on. Rather than go in search of dust bowls to die in, let us send our robot eyes and ears to explore the lifeless seas of space, marveling at their findings while giving thanks that we’re not with them.