One of the biggest problems we confront everyday as human beings is that we never get satisfied. Once we achieve one goal, we look for higher ones.
Once you buy something, you want another one. Once you get a service, you want another, or repetition; think of haircuts or meals. That behaviour keeps the economy humming with demands for new goods and services.
Innovators are also kept busy, ensuring they satisfy our insatiable demands. Some argue even friends are the same, once you get used to some friends, you want another one. That is why divorces take place and philandering is still common.
The only area where we seem to get satisfied is in intellectual pursuits. After school, most people are not eager to look for new intellectual frontiers. One could ask why our universities are overflowing with graduate students. It is contestable if they are after satisfying their intellectual thirst. Most likely, it is about status, getting out of the crowd and getting that recognition from an invisible audience. Or earning more money and doing less work.
Economists can explain our behavior, never getting satisfied using the law of diminishing returns; you get less satisfaction as you consume more of a product or service. Think of how excited you were when you owned your first pair of shoes, your first car or your first kiss under the moonlight?
The same applies to space age. Once we landed on the moon, we lost interest, we asked what next. It is no wonder there was a long lull until the more recent focus on commercialisation of space driven by investors like Elon Musk.
Headed into the cosmos
New nations like China and India are going to space and want to land on the moon, but that is unlikely to create the international excitement it created 50 years. For the upcoming nations, getting into space club is a source of pride just like owning nuclear weapons.
For space pioneers like Americans and Russians, it is time to go beyond the moon. In 2004, President George W Bush captured the American dream, “We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: Human beings are headed into the cosmos.”
The most attractive destination has always been planet Mars. For one, its features resemble Earth with mountains and valleys. The fascination with this planet, called red planet because of appearance is farther driven by myths of green men.
Enough on myths. Going to Mars is not technologically impossible. The biggest problem is returning. To surmount the problem of returning, a very unconventional solution has been suggested. Why not send Earthlians on one way ticket, never to return. About 80,000 Earthlians have volunteered to visit the planet on a one way ticket. I would volunteer too.
By going on a one way ticket, we reduce the weight of the spaceship and dispense the need to carry the fuel needed to escape from Mars gravity on our way back.
The space travelers would have to train thoroughly both physically and emotionally. How would they handle loneliness on the trip? The trip would take about 9 months one way if we align the orbits of Earth with that of Mars. Curiosity, a small robot took about a year to fly from Earth to Mars, from November 26, 2011 to August 6, 2012.
How would they handle conflict that would arise on the journey in the endless space? What of unexpected “weather” that would include new types of radiation, new obstacles like asteroids and so on? We still don’t know enough of the Universe.
The travel to planet Mars and beyond, into the cosmos has another interesting limitation. You can’t travel faster than the speed of light which is only 300,000km per hour. That looks very fast by Earth standards, but if you consider how big the universe is, that is a snail’s pace. It is no wonder the distances in the universe are measured in light years, mind boggling –that is the distance light travels in one year. Try and calculate, if you want to get mental blisters.
Biology is another limitation. We still do not know how a human being would handle prolonged space travel. The moon is too near to give us enough information. The spacecrafts we have sent into outer fringes of the space like Voyager I and II are just that.
Despite incomplete information about space, and the uncertainties, we believe there is a need to expand the frontiers of our knowledge, endurance and imagination by visiting at least one planet. Remember the dividends when Europeans went beyond their shores to discover the “new world,” Americas, Australia, and many islands?
The new lands, provided competition with the old world, leading to innovations and the world as we know it today. But we can’t forget the subjugation of the indigenous people.
By visiting at least one planet, we could start colonies in space that would give Earthlians competition. The universe would benefit with new thinking. The very act of landing on another planet would give science and technology a big impetus and change our views on ourselves.
May be after seeing the lifelessness of planet Mars and other bodies in the universe, we would take greater care of planet Earth.
Such a trip would be the basis of space tourism, the same way we visit different parts of the world. By the year 2200, it is possible that in conferences, attendants will not be from other continents, but other planets. Remember we have already discovered about 2000 exoplanets, outside our solar systems.
It is possible that by that time, we shall be showing off not by talking about the number of continents we have visited but the number of homes or even friends we have in other planets. By 2200, space tourism and honeymoons might be possible. Who thought one day we shall cross the Atlantic in three hours?
From Europe, some say from Africa, we populated the rest the Earth; we can now “seed” the universe with human race. By 3000 AD it could be possible to talk of your cousins in Constellation Cygnus and another in Orion.
Finally, Space travel and visiting Mars and other celestial bodies has another advantage. It will distract us from earthly annoyances like politics and obsession with our own mortality.
George W Bush again, “We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit.” That will not stop me from asking you a simple question. Would you buy a one way ticket to planet Mars? Talk to me.
—The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.