This past summer, I visited the California Science Center and saw the Space Shuttle Endeavour. It was retired in May of 1992 and now sits in an incredibly large airplane hangar, where visitors are invited to walk around and underneath the shuttle. Its thrusters look as though they’ve just been put out of use; the underbelly is still scorched from the long and steamy descent to earth.
It is, by all measures, breathtaking. The thing is beautiful and it is large— forged by the raw, collective ambition not only of NASA, but of the world as a whole.
And in that vaulted hangar, I couldn’t help but notice the faces of countless children—rapt by the mighty thing before them, wondering if one day they might find themselves among the stars. Some of them, I would imagine, must have been wondering if one day, they might find themselves upon a red planet called Mars.
Never before has Mars been so reachable—in 1964, the Mariner 4 made the first successful flyby; in 1975, the Viking 1 became the first manmade thing to touch down a n d successfully operate on Mars; the Sojourner, the Spirit and the Opportunity were the first rovers to map Mars. And now, NASA and private space exploration companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing are daring for a manned mission to Mars.
Shooting for Mars is certainly a pricey endeavor. And while I believe it to be a goal worthy of its price, there are certainly other pressing issues at hand: the earth is warming at an alarming rate, infant mortality and the pandemic of HIV/AIDS remain devastating ailments in places like south and central Africa and terror groups like ISIL threaten the security of millions of people across the planet.
And yet, human creatures have a natural bent to the stars. We can’t help but look at the pale moon or distant constellations and be invigorated with wonder. Ambition progresses society. To dare mighty things is ultimately a task worth our time and effort and, yes, money.
To reach Mars would ensure the survival of our species, spur new scientific discovery essential to understanding the origins of life and ultimately improve the wellbeing of humans on Earth. Only by pushing mankind to its limits can we make discoveries in science and technology that will improve life on planet earth. An innovation in a spacecraft, for example, can translate to a revelation in cancer research or a new mode of energy efficiency.
Follow me back to March of 1923, if you will. The great English explorer George Mallory was asked—shortly before disappearing on The North Face of Mount Everest—why he had decided to climb the world’s highest mountain. His response was this: “because it is there.”
This ambition gets to something a bit more visceral—something unexplained by politics or economics or medicine. And it is that Mars is simply there. It is in our nature to seek new frontiers and explore—to ultimately progress and evolve the human species and to inspire a new generation of explorers.