I decided to skip the update this week, it was much too disjointed and just felt blah. So rather than that I will write a rant, much more exciting, and outward focused.
In Elon Musk’s talk on September 27th he commented during answering questions that the first people to venture to Mars will have to accept the risk of death. A perfectly reasonable risk as they will be even further away from Earth than Apollo 13, but still possibly disconcerting.
What surprises me is that Elon Musk’s age, he is nearly the perfect age for some of the biggest psychological impact from the Challenger disaster. To put it into perspective he was a year or two younger when that happened than I was when 9-11 happened. A teenager dealing with a disaster that may have injured or scarred that generation watching as a teacher was going to orbit. It is possible that this group of kids, now grown, could be reticent to embrace risk for space travel, just as my generation is quite heavily scarred from the subsequent wars.
In fact my fear for the future of spaceflight is that NASA will start to get administrators that were traumatized by that event, and rather than learning to balance risk with listening experts, we still need to push. But Elon seems to be bucking that possibility, even to the point of acknowledging that there will be risk of death. He and SpaceX are pushing technology to get to Mars. Is it a moonshot? No, it’s a marsshot.
Will they be successful? Will they make it in time? What are the risks of failing? What are the risks of delaying? But it isn’t these questions that really worry me, no, it is the responses to these grand plans that really bother me: “It’s too big, too much, too soon, too risky.” “We shouldn’t be swinging for the fences, small incremental steps are better.”
My response is: We are going to bore people to death with incremental steps. We need these pushes, not everything can be safe. The only way we are going to advance quickly is to try new things quickly. Of course some will fail catastrophically, bet on it. But to keep a slow, glacial pace of incremental advancements doesn’t do anything for anybody. Failing early with all of these unmanned missions helps to keep technology going forward, as long as we are willing to continue investing.
If it is the argument about funding, we spent nearly 1 trillion dollars (a very conservative estimate) in Iraq and Afghanistan where some people say hundreds of thousands of people died directly or collaterally. Tell me again why we can’t risk many fewer lives and much less money advancing technology rather than bombing people back to the stone age?
Of course it isn’t as cut and dry as that. If we weren’t concerned with global politics and allowed a vocal violent minority to take over, either large sections of the planet, or specifically the US, then technological development in areas other than new weapons would have even less appeal. Either for the war effort or our new, non-representative overlords. (Even when the reasons aren’t all that clear all the time for US involvement; we should continue to play a significant role in the world, but it is worth discussing the method and the cost.)
Do we need to go to Mars? In short: I hope not. Should we go? Yes and soon.