We went to the Moon in 1969. Now the talk is on Mars again. NASA is planning on going back eventually. Denis Tito wants to help fund a cruise by Mars before 2020, SpaceX wants to put people on Mars around the same time, Mars One wants to establish a permanent colony on Mars not long after. These events will get a lot of attention if the happen. It is interesting to imagine what will happen if we do go.
There is no doubt that it will inspire another generation to do great things; the STEM fields will be hot again. Will it have the same affect as the first moon landings? An estimated 500 million people watched the first moon landing [spaceline]. The world’s population was only 3,600 million, so almost 1/6th the world’s population tuned in! Everyone figured that Mars was next. It was the inevitable next step. The human exploration of space was a welcome distraction from the bitter cold war.
Mars was envisioned to be the next step. And now that private companies are willing to risk their own capital on a venture, the trip to Mars is looking more and more inevitable. I claim that landing on Mars will not have the same impact that the first Moon landing had. It is the first human to set foot on another planet, sure. We can hype it up all we want. But it will take such a long time, that it won’t be quite as impressive at those first steps on the Moon. It is going to happen, but we are dragging our feet (for some good reasons).
There is yet one thing which will capture the imagination again. Like the first Moon landing, NASA and its affiliates can yet again change the way we perceive our role in the cosmos. Landing on Mars would extend our reach further into the cosmos. But there is a lingering question which people have imagined for generations now. Are we alone in the universe?
Everywhere we look on Earth, we find life. At the bottom of the ocean, inside ice, miles down buried in rock … exists things alive and kicking. If we find life somewhere else in the solar system, the chances that life arose anywhere else in the universe instantly becomes a certainty. And how the possibilities abound. Life on Earth has something in common. We are connected through our use of DNA.
Earthrise is not the first color images of the Earth taken from space.
For many, images such as this inspired feelings of unity. There are no political borders visible, no strife nor violence. Everything on this planet shares one home; we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Finding life on another world will engender the same feelings. Only this time, we would be connected to the entire universe of worlds.
The search for life has been stated to be one of the prime motivators for many of NASAs missions, especially in recent years. A primary mission objective for the Curiosity rover, in all its nuclear powered glory, is the search for signs of life on Mars. The stated objectives are dry and typical science-y jargon. But really, it is there to assess the possibility that Mars once had life and the possibility of supporting future life [National Geographic]. The Kepler spacecraft, which has found about 3,538 planet candidates during its mission [NASA]. But Kepler can only see a small fraction of possible planets. If we remove that effect, an estimated 20 billion Earth-like planets exist in our own Milky Way galaxy [Time]. The primary goal for the spacecraft was to try to find other planets similar to the Earth, at least in size.
By far, the most interesting topic for the majority of my students is the possibility of life in space. A discovery will bring with it a host of ethical dilemmas and biological possibilities which we have barely begun to imagine in our science fiction. It will launch our consciousness into the vast universe. The universe will continue to be uninviting, but no longer desolate. We won’t be isolated in our little corner of the universe, alone with just our thoughts.
Or there is nothing and we are alone.