Watching the first miners come out of the mine in Chile after being trapped underground since August 5th was interesting. As I write this only two miners have reached the top with 31 still to go. One of the commentators equated this moment with Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon. In large part because it was a technological achievement with lots of media coverage. I also read that NASA was providing advice and some health and medical equipment to the rescue effort. When it comes to putting human bodies in strange situations safely NASA knows what it is doing.
Every time someone compares something to the Moon landings I feel a little disillusioned. We landed on the Moon in 1969. It is 2010. What have we done in the 41 years since then? Okay, okay, we have made huge improvements as far as environmental regulations like clean air and water. We have advanced technology far beyond what most people even know how to utilize. My iPhone has more capability than a fifteen year old computer. We have done other things as well, such as address sustainability, efficiency, quality of life, disease, and of course crash a few economies. While all of that is very nice and that work is tremendously important, it does not inspire in the same way as exploration.
I really am a modern day explorer. "Had I only been born a generation or two earlier." It is the lament of every explorer. They have all felt at some point like they had to invent a challenge to overcome. The challenge of the Moon, circumnavigating the Earth, or climbing the highest mountain are all very legitimate and easily defined. They have also all been done. Next it becomes about doing the challenge in the best style. Which is an inspirational attitude yet fundamentally the challenge has already been completed.
I do not know why I want to do something no one has done before but I know that I do. This comes in many forms. My run on the Wonderland Trail in September was an example of doing something that no one had really done before. Yet it has been run in a much faster time and thousands of people backpack it every year so it was really not something new. As the NASA budget gets reorganized and re-prioritized it seems that the chance that the US will send humans farther into space is low. Our inspiration is so different and esoteric than in the past. Hundreds of years ago it was a new future in the New World. In the early part of the 1900s in the US it was a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. In the 1940s it was winning a war. In the 1960s it was getting to the Moon. To be honest it seems that the great problems that we are trying to solve in 2010 are things like the economy, national debt, healthcare, world hunger, clean water, and according the the commercials who would make the best politician.
What I'm trying to say is: let's go to Mars. Why? It would most likely create a number of jobs. We would develop and refine a number of technologies to be more efficient and reliable. It is something inspirational and tangible. It could be profitable. Besides the obvious book and movie deals there is the advertising. NASA and the US government in general has not really tackled this issue yet. For example, astronauts would probably spend most of their time in shorts and short sleeve shirts. Why not get some company to pay millions for the exclusive rights to have astronauts wear their shirts? Or why not put some nice flashy patches or stickers on astronauts space suits for other sponsors? There is also the space ship itself, pens, pencils, computers, watches, food, tools, utensils, and all of that other plain white stuff in a spacecraft that could take stickers. The astronauts, scientists, engineers, and others directly involved in the mission could be contracted for perhaps five years after the mission to make speaking tours, many of which could turn a profit for the government. There is also the merchandise and internet advertising, because I am sure they would blog their way to Mars and back. Why not sell a ton of Mars rocks?
Whoa, that paragraph kind of got away from me. I could talk about space profits for a long time. Anyway, what is next? I do not know.