Red Planet Bound [Blog]
In Person or Proxy to Mars and Beyond?
By Larry Klaes, Guest Writer
In 1972, singer, pianist, and composer Sir Elton H. John (born 1947) released a song titled “Rocket Man”. This music piece, which was inspired by a Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) science fiction story of the same name, has an individual who sees his job in outer space not as some grand adventure as one might expect of a typical astronaut, but rather as ordinary and isolating.
Not only does this Rocket Man miss Earth and his wife living there, declaring “it’s lonely out in space,” he also says that “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact it’s cold as hell/And there’s no one there to raise them/If you did.”
As a life-long space and astronomy enthusiast, when I first became aware of this song, I was highly disappointed with its message. “Rocket Man” was a definite reflection of the counterculture era, where many rejected what they saw as the militant flaws and antiquated traditions of society which held back all but a select privileged few.
The space program fell into that category, being seen as a vehicle of a predominantly white male military-industrial complex. That it was also so publicly prominent only made it an even easier target for criticism, especially the kind that asked why we were spending money on sending humans to the Moon when there were so many problems on Earth that needed fixing first.
Even as a kid I knew this was an “apples and oranges” situation. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, was funded far less than most other government agencies of that era, a status that remains to the present day. Diverting all its resources to social agendas would have been a temporary band aid at best, not a real solution to modern civilization’s myriad of problems.
Nevertheless, the general public which had supported the early bold declaration of “sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” within ten years had undergone a significant sea change by the time NASA was actually placing astronauts on our planet’s nearest celestial neighbor at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s.
I had grown up in that era of the early Space Age when humans were actively circling Earth in preparation for launching representatives of our species to land on the Moon while robotic probes had begun to reveal other worlds such as Venus and Mars. I bought into the future storyline of the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and all those other pro-space entertainment media so prevalent then that humanity would almost automatically spread out and colonize first the Moon and then the other places in our Sol system, before moving on into the wider Milky Way galaxy.
I did not pay much attention to the geopolitical and social forces driving and affecting the space programs then, not just because I wasn’t able to fully comprehend them as a naive kid, but also because I felt they were only temporary issues, ones humanity would conquer as easily and rightly as we were doing with our move into outer space. After all, didn’t Star Trek show a future just a few centuries from now where Earth was united, we were flying about the galaxy in fancy starships, and dealing with all sorts of new alien neighbors as part of a collective called the United Federation of Planets (UFP).
So, when I heard Elton John warbling a very popular tune that said the starry realm was unpleasant, lonely, and not something good for bringing up children in, I was concerned his words would only add fuel to the fire that was already setting back our “manifest destiny” in the Final Frontier in the beginning of the 1970s.
The Apollo lunar program was already being defunded after the seventeenth mission, which in turn was killing off any plans for manned lunar colonies. The logical promise of sending humans on to the planet Mars after the success of Apollo, as soon as the 1980s it was being declared, was also placed on a shelf. No one was saying such missions were being cancelled, but it was pretty obvious that no one at NASA was seriously working on such an adventure by then, nor would they be any time soon.
Many in the West thought that America’s superpower rival, the Soviet Union, would pick up the gauntlet we had dropped and soon there would be cosmonaut boot prints on the Moon and Mars as they went on to become the dominant society throughout the Sol system and beyond.
Since then, a lot has changed. The American manned space program is not only picking up again, with real plans to settle the Moon with a new generation of astronauts as well as send these explorers on to Mars in the 2030s, but there is also a new Space Race of a kind, this time mainly with China. Upon jumping into this race with their first successful satellite launch in 1970, the “People’s Republic” now has a second crewed space station circling Earth while simultaneously conducting automated rover and sample return missions to the Moon and their first wheeled explorer conducting science on the Red Planet.
My attitude and views on our ventures into the Final Frontier have also changed over the decades. I am still quite the space supporter, but I am seeing it now as happening in certain different ways, in particular how we should venture into the void directly with fellow human beings.
When I used to read and hear certain professionals, whom I automatically assumed should have been big supporters of manned space exploration and settlement, publicly state that robots were better for exploring the cosmic void than human beings, I was indignant. They were going against the virtually predestined vision for our species expansion into the Milky Way galaxy and all those other stellar islands out there. Humans had to be an integral part of this future, otherwise our species and society would end up either stagnating or outright destroying itself in the very nest of its birth. No one in their right mind would keep a child in their crib and expect them to develop properly otherwise.
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