Mars missions mean more than just space travel

When I was a kid, I wasn’t a very discerning child. I tended to watch whatever happened to be on TV, unless it was something I really didn’t like. Back in the late '90s and early 2000's, Cartoon Network tended to lean on a backlog of Hanna-Barbera cartoons to fill the time slots a lot of weekday mornings and afternoons when I got off the school bus. Among these shows were the 1963-64 TV cartoon, "The Jetsons."

Even as a kid, something about "The Jetsons" struck me as odd. I realized the 21st century that "The Jetsons" predicted was very different than the one I was living in.

It seems to be the idea of the future 50 to 60 years ago is vastly different than what we really got. Even predictions from 30 years ago seem to wildly diverge from what we got as shown by the recent deluge of articles on what " Back to the Future II" got right and wrong.

This is particularly noticeable, in my eyes, with space exploration. Many works of fiction, from "The Jetsons" to Ray Bradbury’s "The Martian Chronicles," predicted humanity to be walking amongst the stars by the end of the 20th century. What did the actual late 20th century bring? Well, while there were major accomplishments and tragedies, humanity as a whole rarely left their planet’s grasp. 

In fact, the last manned moon landing was in 1972, and space exploration was further hurt by NASA tabling many of its bigger projects due to budgeting issues. While private companies are emerging to pick up slack, true travel beyond Earth seems a long way off with NASA not planning any exploration of deep space until at least 2017.

Space travel costs money. That’s a fact. It costs a lot of money. And the U.S. isn’t the sole investor in space exploration. In fact, many modern space explorations are through multiple countries. Even ASU’s own Mars Space Flight Facility works with top-scoring Chinese high school students in one of their active projects. But so far outside of unmanned vehicles, many of which have been instrumental in the recent discoveries about Mars, we’ve never dared to explore beyond our moon.

But why? The biggest reason is this. In the words of Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.”

Big expanses of space require time to travel across it. It took the Apollo Missions three days to reach the moon. For Mars, a similar trip would take nine months. For each planet after, it would only take longer to the point where a jaunt to Pluto would take a whopping 9 1/2 years.

That’s a long time to be traveling, and that’s a lot of resources to take into consideration since humans need water and oxygen to stay alive. That’s not even factoring in physiological issues that could be associated with the travel.

The sad truth of the matter is that we aren’t quite at the level of "Star Wars’" Hyperspace, or even the “hypersleep” of the "Alien" franchise. To be blunt, there is no way to get into deep space without taking long spans of these astronauts’ lives.

Mars, however, is still very much in our sights. Fourteen months in space with current technology is a long time for a round trip, but it’s the first step into a larger universe. And, as mentioned, everyone from NASA to ASU is keeping an eye on the Red Planet to some extent.

Because, ultimately, as cheesy and by the book as shows like "The Jetsons" are, there is a sense of idealism that I feel we should embrace. In a way, we kind of need to shoot for the stars to give us something bigger than ourselves to look forward to. We need to give humanity a reason to think beyond itself and rekindle the explorer’s spirit that used to be such a part of us.


Reach the columnist at drsmit19@asu.edu or follow @Maxx_Lazerblast on Twitter.

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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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