Status Report

MarsNow 1.5 “Why Mars?”

By SpaceRef Editor
August 15, 2001
Filed under , ,

Why Mars? It’s the inevitable question most people ask when confronted
by our interest and involvement in the exotic red planet. It’s not so
much why Mars, as it is why be interested in a thing beyond the
immediate and everyday. I faced the same bafflement while in graduate
school for Russian studies: why the exotic, the alien, the seemingly
impractical? The difference now is in the next questions asked by
co-workers at the water cooler, which are usually one or both of “why
waste all that money in space when we have problems here on Earth,” or
“how dare we go screw up another planet while we’re treating this one so
badly,” a somewhat different question.

These questions are fine, and appropriate – they go to my personal
motivations and deserve a well-considered answer (in passing, my
favorite reply to the first one is on pp. 21-22 of Buzz Aldrin and John
Barnes’s novel The Return). They open the door to challenging several
of our culture’s unquestioned assumptions, and if handled with respect,
get people thinking. There’s a different and more troublesome “why,”
though – not the why that’s asked but the why we feel impelled to answer
just precisely so in order to garner the resources necessary to go to
Mars. There are two ready dangers in that why: misconstruing whom we
must satisfy with our response, and using competing answers to feed
factionalism among Mars advocates. Mars, I believe, is very like
Everest: “because it’s there” really is sufficient.

In my public talks, I don’t start by addressing the water-cooler whys,
for an important reason. I stress what people are doing now to get us
to Mars, from the FMARS research station to people inquiring into the
origins of life, solving the puzzles of photo-geology, building launch
vehicle companies or advancing recycling technology. I explain how
affordable it can be and compare the costs not to government programs
but to what we spend on smokes, booze and makeup. By the time I open
things up for questions I’m not alone in answering those doubting whys:
I’ve got an audience half-full of people ready to supply their own

The “imperative” answer to why (“The reason why we should want to go to
Mars is – “) doesn’t address your motivations when you answer me. It
addresses my motivations. It doesn’t explain what passion animates your
efforts, but imposes or denies a stamp of legitimacy to mine. When you
tell me, “Mars is the manifest destiny of a pioneering people,” then my
desire to live as part of nature rather than master over it is
illegitimate. When you declaim “Mars will demonstrate the virtues of
small-scale socialism,” then I hear that my fellow advocates of using
free-market tools to spread rapidly through the solar system may not be
allowed to act on their views. Declaring that “Mars should be an
off-limits park to preserve indigenous life, if any” may condemn
humanity to an increased threat of extinction from being denied a
potentially livable world. All these “this and not that” arguments
divert our energies away from getting to Mars and towards fighting our
only allies. They doom all our visions of Mars by denying any one a
consensus powerful enough to succeed. The “explanatory” why, by
contrast, (“I want to go to Mars because – “) invites the discovery of
common ground, the expansion of possibility, the magnification of

That’s my why, and that’s my Mars. This great endeavor – the settlement
of another world – speaks to so many of us, personally, uniquely. I
want a Mars full of people answering their own calling, not selected,
sifted, regimented, commanded. That’s why I find the other why, the
imperative why, so dangerous. It legitimizes a single view and casts
the others as wrong, unwelcome, excluded. Mars must not fall victim to
the evil utopian fallacies of the last century, when idealists – bloody
dictators – sought to create one static perfect society, a thing which
can only be done by the exile or slaughter of the misfit, by using the
tools of state power – guns and jails – to pound the round pegs of human
complexity into the square holes of ideology.

I note that my explanatory why, if it were an imperative why, would
exclude people too: it doesn’t allow room for those who would use guns
and jails, who would impose immigration controls, who would force their
vision on others. Rather than tossing off a glib answer, I’ll expand on
the reasoning behind it, involving a fairly heavy dollop of modern
political theory, in a later column.

Beyond utopianism, the imperative why is an outgrowth of the
governmental monopoly on access to space. Advocates of space projects
have always been forced to play zero-sum games. Government budgets are
finite, and choosing one expenditure means rejecting another. Increases
in the NASA budget come out of Veterans Affairs or Housing and Urban
Development. Money for Mars means less for the International Space
Station. To fill my rice bowl, I must steal from yours. Demand, rather
than command, economies work differently: to gain support for my
project I don’t have to convince the sovereign that some other project
ought to get bumped. Rather, I just need to find people who share my
passion and have the resources, be they cash or sweat equity, to realize
my goal. I choose to spend my money on books rather than movies,
supporting a publishing industry. Enough others choose movies to keep
Hollywood busy. By private means, going to Mars doesn’t negate going to
the Moon. Nor need one vision of Mars invalidate another. Some will
fail to attract adherents, some will fail in the harsh conditions of
Martian reality. Some will scrape by like old mining towns; some will
flourish like Las Vegas. The determinants will be physical conditions
and individual choices, rather than the commands of prophets or

Try, the next time someone asks “why Mars,” to answer by naming your
passion, not delimiting theirs. This applies most strongly to those of
us in the space advocacy community. By definition, we like to assert
our views – that’s what makes us advocates. Yet when we’re not
preaching to the choir we’re hunting heretics in the congregation. How
many of us have pitched donors for support, only to be told that they
don’t want to get involved in inter-group rivalries? A robust internal
debate strengthens us. But if we work together on the 90% of issues
where we share common ground, we can continue to debate the 10% in Luna
City, O’Neill One and Dorsa Brevia, rather than endlessly in Boulder and
Los Angeles.

On the eve of the fourth annual Mars Society conference, I’d like to
encourage each speaker there to approach the question of “why” as
introspective rather than imperative. Share your passion with us and
encourage our participation. Recognize that Mars is world enough for a
multitude of dreams.

Mars Now is a weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight,
Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.
Views expressed here are strictly the author’s and do not
necessarily represent Foundation policy.

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SpaceRef staff editor.