Sunday, January 18, 2004

Monday -- now technically tomorrow in Pacific Standard Time -- is Martin Luther King day. It's a big deal in Berkeley, even more so than Indigenous People's Day (known as Columbus Day in the rest of the country). It was a big deal when I lived in Maryland, too. Enough of that attitude has transferred that I still take a few minutes every MLK day to listen to the radio when the I have a dream speech plays.

I've thought a lot recently about another dream: men on Mars. Books on Mars are a sci-fi staple, probably because Mars is the only planet in the neighborhood we could plausibly survive on. I've read many books from the Mars sub-genre. I've read Heinlein's Red Planet and Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and various others, good and bad. I think the dream of Mars is exciting; and for a nation where ever-fewer students want to study engineering and the sciences, I think that excitement is important.

I also think that an unnerving fraction of the unmanned missions sent to Mars have failed. The current Mars rover is inspiring, and that robot is almost certainly a more appropriate choice than a human at this point. I remember watching the Challenger go up -- and blow up -- in elementary school. I remember how NASA had to struggle to leave the shadow of Challenger, and I wondered if I would watch history repeated with the Columbia. To more than one generation, astronauts are heroes, and the death of such heroes is hard to take. I wonder if we will rush to send the first men to Mars, only to find men lost, hopes dashed, and NASA irreparably damaged.

Mars is a noble goal, and I'm impressed by it. I'm less impressed that the first steps involve taking away funding from other productive projects -- like the Hubble -- and promising insufficient additional funds. If the project is to be undertaken, future administrations will face hard fiscal questions. Of course, those fiscal problems may be minor compared to other future fiscal difficulties resulting from Bush administration policies. I was disturbed to hear Paul O'Neill's quote of Cheney: Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. Carpe diem! I do not think we have the funds to commit to a manned Mars project done right; and a manned Mars project done wrong will reduce funds and prestige available for other space-based science. I also agree with critics who point out that we have some serious messes on our own planet and in our own country that should take precedence over putting men on Mars. I also expect that Bush's move is inspired less by a grand vision of men in space than by a grand vision of Bush in office for another term.

But for all that, I still would like to see men on Mars while I live.

My mixed feelings about Mars mirror a lot of my mixed feelings about politics recently. Should the United States have reacted to September 11 with an examination of it's own security? Of course -- that was an inevitable part of the reaction. Does that mean that we should suspend civil liberties for the prisoners of Guantanomo Bay, or that some bureaucrat should decide that BART train restrooms must be closed until further notice for your security and the security of others. No! Is Afghanistan better off under a regime less repressive than the Taliban, and are Iraq and the rest of the world better off without Saddam Hussein in a position of power? I think so. Did we do well to anger our allies, not only acting unilaterally, but in the process declaring them irrelevant if not outright reviling them? No! Freedom fries indeed. Are we now doing the right thing in trying to help Iraq? Well, perhaps we have some of the details wrong, but I think we're obligated to give what help we can. Does the proclamation that countries who were not militarily involved in Iraq shall not bid on reconstruction projects make the US sound like we have any motivation higher than commerce? Not really, though I believe that we do. Should we explore new technologies for energy production, and study the failures of the current distribution system in the hopes that it can be improved? Yes. Does that mean conservation is irrelevant because profligate energy expenditure is the American way, and the American way of life is a blessed one? Hardly.

I dream of a world where people are morally outraged by sloth and profligacy, and not by the fact that not everyone in the world is Christian. I want to see more people excited by the opportunity to build and explore, to be scientists and engineers, and fewer people who are excited by the profitability of law suits. I dream of ideas shared, not locked up in a safe and guarded by ill-considered patents. And I dream of men on Mars in my lifetime.

I also dream of warm socks, breakdancing koala bears, and writing equations with a weird stick of chalk that keeps changing colors. I suppose the dreams that come from REM sleep have as much place in life as the dreams that come from inspired sentiment. And right now, I think I ought to check in on those koalas.