A worthy endeavour

Although we’ve sent unmanned probes to Mars before (waaaay back during the Viking days, and the Mars Rover mission), Mars Phoenix (and its Twitter stream) seems to have ignited a small amount of excitement about space exploration again, which can only be a good thing. At this time in history, when the world is mired in various crises stemming from mankind’s lapses in judgment and refusal to work together on a global scale, we need a little bit of the wonder and optimism that space exploration seems to instill in us all. While I would not equate Mars Phoenix’s landing with Neil Armstrong’s first steps on Luna by any means, I do think it’s a step in the right direction.

With that in mind, I turn your attention to a short manifesto which made the rounds a little under a year ago, when Phoenix Twitter fever was at a high pitch. SFC William H. Ruth III, of the 101st Airborne Division, has written a short essay, volunteering for a one-way mission to the red planet. In his words:

While reading Jim McLane and Nancy Atkinson’s thoughts on Space Colonization, I started to realize that we ‘ALL’ have lost our way. We have become so consumed by petty differences and dislikes of others that we all have forgotten our pre destiny of something better. We above all other living organisms on this planet were given the tools to advance and to expand our thoughts past simple reproduction and survival. What will we ultimately do with that destiny? Will we falter at a hint of death or danger? Or will we do now what so many in ‘ALL’ of the world’s history has done before us.

Here is an ‘Out of the box idea’, let the hero’s [sic] of ‘All’ our countries, for once, risk the ultimate sacrifice for something greater than one man’s idea. Maybe once let these men and woman that rise every morning and say ‘today I will stand for something’ and say ‘evil will not prevail, not on my watch’. For once let them volunteer for us all, you never know, mankind, the human race. It might just catch on if we let it.

I can’t begin to express how much respect, admiration, and genuine awe I have for this man. Ruth is made of the stuff that makes for great military heroes: the determination and tenacity to get a job done, in the service of something greater than him/herself, but without losing sight of one’s humanity and one’s place in the greater scheme of things, as a member of the human species. That he would chose to parlay that bravado usually associated with earthly military conquests and adventure into a pursuit as noble as the one he outlines gives me hope for humanity, regardless of the feasibility of the idea.

Inspired in part by this little essay, James C. McLane III, a former NASA Manned Space Program scientist now toiling away in the oil and gas industry, has put together a compelling argument for a manned, one-way, solo mission to Mars from the point of view of a scientist. It’s fascinating reading, not only for the quick history lesson contained in his recalling of NASA’s Apollo missions, but for his optimistic enthusiasm for this seemingly Herculean endeavor:

He or she would live out their lives as residents of an alien desert world, completely dependent on regular resupply missions from earth. If we can eliminate the requirement to launch that person off of Mars to bring them back, we remove a major obstacle to mission practicality. Carrying enough rocket fuel to the surface of Mars to permit a launch back into space for a return to Earth, or else somehow manufacturing fuel on Mars for this launch is a technical problem with no solution likely in the next twenty or thirty years. There are current plans for a robotic mission to return a one- or two-pound sample of Mars soil for study. But even the simple rocket needed to bring such a tiny amount of dirt back from Mars will be heavy and technically difficult to land on that planet. For a one-way human mission, significant engineering problems remain, but without the need for a Mars launch, we can plan a program within the scope of available or near-term technology.

Life support and resupply would also be greatly simplified if there is only one astronaut, but perhaps the first human mission might consist of two people; maybe even a male/female team. That privileged couple would follow in the tradition of the creation stories of many earthly religions. The pair would become more than just historic, they would become legend.

Once again, this article serves as a reminder to me that, instead of lionizing military heroes, or admiring corporate giants (not that there’s all that much of either going on these days, but whatever), our society would be well-served by paying attention to and promoting those who would aspire to prop humanity as a whole to greater heights.

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