With all the pressing issues confronting Americans at home and abroad, some of us have grown a bit touchy about the ambitions of those turning their eyes to the stars. Although no less than former president Barack Obama threw his weight, shortly before leaving office, behind the goal of a human mission to Mars, his successor’s support for the same epochal achievement has rankled critics more inclined to spend big on superficially low-risk, broadly distributed social entitlements. However well-intentioned, this is a mistake.
Even those who object that Trump’s envisioned timeline for a human Mars landing is just unworkable are missing the point: risky and costly as a trip to the red planet may be, it’s a journey we should want to take, and one we should get to work on right now.
The issue came to a head as Trump phoned up to the International Space Station — that symbol of global goodwill that sometimes seems sharply limited it what else it can offer — and told the astronauts onboard he’d like to accelerate the consensus timetable to get a landing before he leaves office.
SpaceX chief Elon Musk, who has gained something of a reputation for leveraging publicity and interest by touting best-case scenarios, has circled 2024 on his company calendar for a Mars landing. But the White House may not be content to squeeze an American astronaut on a Musk vessel and shout “USA!” when he or she touches down. That would mean pushing NASA and its private-sector aerospace partners to do in fewer years than Musk what federal space scientists think can’t be done until the 2030s.
Instead, so far, it has merely accelerated backlash against the whole idea of a Mars mission. As Amitai Etzioni recently argued in the National Interest, elites with a conscience ought to agree that sending humans out of Earth orbit is a breach of our moral obligations for humans at home. Etzioni approvingly cites British Astronomer Martin Rees, who recently said the case for a manned mission of any kind, not just to Mars, “gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturization. It’s hard to see any particular reason or purpose in going back to the moon or indeed sending people into space at all.” And he agrees with Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg that manned missions are “an incredible waste of money” that at least should be swapped out for “dozens of unmanned, robotic missions roving all over Mars.”
In an exasperated essay at Aeon, professors Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel sharpen the point still further. “What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns? Musk wants to innovate and leave Earth, rather than to take care of it, or fix it, and stay,” they warn. “Like so many of his peers in the innovating and disrupting classes, Musk prefers to dwell in fantasy and science fiction, safely removed from the world of here and now. Musk is a utopian, in the original Greek meaning: ‘no place.’…