Next Stop: Mars

Traveling is built into our human, or even animal nature. Evolution probably began with a step away from a predator or towards food. Ever since, humans have been pushing frontiers. And our next stop is Mars.

The White House Frontiers conference at Pittsburgh will gather executives from companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and moon mining firm Moon Express. The event will focus on advances in science and technology, including crewed missions to Mars.

NASA is working towards sending a human mission to Mars with a return ticket by the 2030s. President Obama is the driving force behind much of this initiative. Government and private companies will share the effort. The costs, risks and technological challenges for either to do it alone are simply too high. There is now talk of interplanetary human colonies.

As often, fiction prefigures reality. For a generation that grew up with Star Trek and Star Wars, a human mission to Mars is within the realm of the possible. And it is an exhilaratingly fantastic notion to entertain.

But there are questions that go beyond technological feasibility –we can have a fair degree of certainty that sooner or later we will muster the resources to get there. There may be threats lurking on a different front: policy and behavior.

President Obama is a smart man, perhaps one of the most brilliant U.S. leaders in a century. He knows he may have a hard sell to devote so much money to an endeavor with no obvious urgency. The U.S. is the “only nation” to have sent missions to every planet in the Solar System, as Obama says. But his claim is reason for concern. Regardless of the truth of it, let us hope that an interplanetary community will resemble more the Space Federation of sci-fi fame. Not the mess we have made here at home.

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