"On one hand, they could be the first humans to set foot on another planet. On the other, they'll die there." (1)
These were the haunting words of Jessica Contrera, a reporter from the Washington Post, after news was released February 16th that Mars One, a Dutch non-profit, had found its final 100 candidates hoping to be sent on a one-way mission to terraform Mars. For real.
Over 200,000 people applied, but the final twenty-four are being chosen as carefully as the disciples of Christ. The plan is to train 24 finalists, sending only four on the first trip in 2024 and sending four more every two years after that. Anyone over 18, regardless of background, was welcomed to apply, because Mars One believes its greatest need is not to find the most intelligent or most skill-refined people - but rather, the people most dedicated to the cause. Mars One is even considering allowing the world to vote for who gets to go first.
Naturally, there are skeptics criticizing the movement from all sides. Some say technology has barely advanced enough for a safe and successful Mars mission. Some don't believe that they'll ever raise enough funds - and others think that the money needs to be spent on Earth. Still others think the entire Mars One mission is just a corporate hoax for advertising or other ulterior motives. But no one has been able to definitively say that it's impossible, and Mars One's original 200,000 applicants seemed to agree.
So why does the trip have to be one-way?
According to the entrepreneur behind Mars One, one-way is cheaper and more doable in terms of technological advancements expected to happen by 2024. Most importantly, however, Mars One needs to know its astronauts are going to give everything without hesitation.
According to Mars One sources, the finalists will be trained in the simulated Mars habitat Outpost Alpha, likely in the Arctic. Here they will learn how to operate and troubleshoot electrical equipment, along with medical techniques, dental skills and space agriculture. (3) While Mars One considers this to be a good test of whether the team is psychologically suited to adapt to interplanetary isolation, I imagine nothing can prepare them for the moment when they leave Earth forever. They'll lose everything from heat lighting to Chinese New Year to the smile wrinkles on their aging parents' faces. Everything - except each other.
Their application videos reveal that these people aren't insane, nor are they suicidal. Some want their names carved boldly into history. Others seem strangely selfless - with the paradoxical desire to inspire those on Earth by leaving them forever. One particular finalist I'm fascinated by is a data architect named Daniel Carey, who revealed in his interview video that he plans to leave behind his wife and two children who are in their early 20s. At first glance, he's not unlike the character from Elton John's Rocket Man. However, there's more to the picture: Carey believes this material expansion of human living space is necessary if we're going to survive in the long term. When interviewed by the Washington Post, his wife, Ann, was sympathetic but skeptical.
"How do you ask someone who you love to give up something that is important to them?" she said. "And on the other hand, how can they love you if they are willing to leave you to go do this thing they are dreaming about?" (4)
She raises an interesting ethical question that I think needs to be explored extensively. It may seem easy to condemn Carey for his decision to abandon his family. On another hand, he genuinely believes that if he is selected, he has the moral obligation to go. He considers his potential sacrifice akin to that of the military. (5) He believes his life has a greater destiny that transcends the earth and the people he loves. While this desire to extend our human destiny beyond the limits of time and space is intrinsically good and true, I feel Carey's practical application of it is misaligned, and here's why.
Growing up, I used to fantasize about being an astronaut and leaving the atmosphere. I'll forever be in a Treasure Planet phase where I dream of solar-sailing through the cosmos. I'm entranced by science fiction, especially from authors Ray Bradbury and Douglas Adams, particularly because of the unique perspective of reality sci-fi stories give me. As the late Adams so ingeniously observed:
"The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be." (6)
Additionally, the miracle of the human being lies in the fact that there are also unseen universes within ourselves to explore. From the cell to the mind, there are mysteries within ourselves which cannot be answered through the material colonization of land. What we truly desire in all our seeking - manifested in a desire for material conquest - is to know where we came from, where we're going, and ultimately, why.
I can empathize with the burning curiosity that drives the decisions of the Mars One finalists. It ruminates from the depths of our entire being. As Dietrich von Hildebrand says in Aesthetics,
"Even our soul itself becomes more beautiful when beauty meets us, takes hold of us, and fires us with enthusiasm." (7)It's an instinctual desire to be a steward of the universe. I remember being a small child in a planetarium and realizing the stars were in me and I in them - that I, an infinitely important speck, was suspended in space on an adorably tiny blue marble. Space exploration is a manifestation of the natural human desire to tear the veil and expose our blinded eyes to the physical truths of reality. As the American astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author Neil Degrasse Tyson says,
"Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don't know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me." (8)
Valid a force as it is, scientific curiosity can consume us if we lose sight of humanity in the process. And when people aren't the priority - when science is depersonalized - when science sees men as mere props in the greater scheme of progress - it fails to fulfill its ordained purpose of benefiting mankind. Mahatma Ghandi said that one of the "Roots of Violence is "science without humanity." (9)
I want to be able to justify the manned exploration of Mars.
I think it's a glorious idea in theory, but unfortunately it looks quite different in Mars One's practice. Even though Mars One uses rhetoric to describe the mission as being "for mankind" (10), its harsh one-way policy has slighted the value of the individual human person. It's also likely, according to predictions from various scientists, that the first few batches of "missionaries" will perish soon after landing, with only a few survivors to keep forging the colony ahead. (11)
As St. John Paul the Great wrote, the sacrificing of human life "under the pretext of scientific or medical progress, in fact reduces human life to the level of simple 'biological material' to be freely disposed of." (12) Under the condition that they abandon all other human relationships for the sake of curiosity, the Mars One team will become slaves to the experimental mission until the day they die. But human life, not land colonization, is the most infinite and sacred good. Human life must never be regarded as a machination or instrument for a supposed greater end. No ends justify the sacrificing of human life as a means. As Dietrich von Hildebrand writes:
"Love embodies the life of all virtues and expresses the most inmost substance of all holiness." (13)
Science ought to be used to bring us to a greater awareness of the reality of ourselves and the people we love, not detach us from them. As the British comic actor Charlie Chaplin said:
"More than machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost." (14)
And how can anyone truly decide what kind of person should be allowed on the Mars One team?
Some have said to send the single or terminally ill. But just because a person is single or terminally ill doesn't mean they aren't needed desperately here on Earth. Every one of the Mars One applicants has a life worth living here on Earth, and humanity can benefit infinitely more from their presence than from their absence. Albeit, many Mars One applicants justify their absence, saying that this interplanetary expansion of living space will ultimately inspire human beings to reflect on the possibilities in their own earthly lives.
However, until some pressing demand or crisis on Earth demands that we terraform Mars, we ought to first and foremost revere and nurture Earth and all her people like it's the only chance we'll ever have for survival in this universe. And while we're certainly here to be stewards of the universe - to learn all its devastatingly breathtaking realities and revel in its unanswered mysteries - we must primarily be stewards to the people we encounter in our lives. Inspiration is not necessitated by an obscure material expansion of territory, but rather in the gift of our intimate and unrepeatable presence to the people around us. As the Doctor says in Doctor Who,
"In nine hundred years of time and space, I've never met anybody who wasn't important." (15)
Any science that demands otherwise is counter-intuitive and self-defeating to the intrinsic nature of science.
We must acknowledge that our existence as human beings is both one of power and one of feeble dependence - of stars and earth. As Dietrich von Hildebrand writes,
"Humility involves the full knowledge of our status as creatures, a clear consciousness of having received everything we have from God." (16)
There will always be further material terrain to colonize, but until we learn to live in unity within our countries, homes, and selves, mankind will follow a trail of tragic dissatisfaction and fall short of our ultimate great leap - the leap to each other.
I can't seem to read enough Ray Bradbury. When I'm not reading, I'm playing violin, Super Mario, or Super Mario songs on violin.
(1) Contrera, Jessica. "Would you leave your family behind to be the first human to set foot on Mars?" The Washington Post. 11 February 2015. Print.
(4) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics.
(12) Ryan, Órla. "Remember those people who want to live on Mars? They'd die after 68 days." The Journal. 15 October 2014.