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A Magazine of Ideas

A Dream Delayed: Man’s Mission to Mars

Friday, March 15, 2013

NASA has decided that private enterprise will have to take on the job of reaching Mars. A new generation of space-minded tycoons is ready for the mission. We can do it.

It has now been 63 years since the release of the first movie to treat space exploration as a serious topic. Eight years later, the government got around to establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to conduct civilian space exploration. Eleven years after that, NASA put a man on the moon. Mars was obviously the next target. Forty-four years later it still is. NASA is suffering from budgetary lucrepenia and, with parallels to the film “Destination Moon,” has decided that private enterprise will have to take on the job.

“Destination Moon” starred John Archer (father of actress Anne) as Jim Barnes, an aircraft manufacturer. Barnes is hard-driving, far-sighted, and an inspired salesman, especially of his own ideas. His overriding idea is that the United States must take the lead in colonizing the moon before you-know-who gets there. He assembles a group of fellow tycoons and enlists them in the effort. (The group also includes one non-tycoon, a Bernard Baruch figure who speaks with posh precision and smokes his cigarettes in a holder but to whom the rest listen respectfully anyway.)

The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein had a hand in developing the script, and it has echoes of his popular 1947 juvenile novel Rocket Ship Galileo and hints of his later story The Man Who Sold the Moon. There are more than hints of his political views. In “Destination Moon,” Barnes has contracted his moon obsession from his old colleague General Thayer, who, Billy Mitchell–like, has been drummed out of the Army because of his monomania. Thayer explains to Barnes why he must be involved:

It’s peacetime, Jim. The government isn’t making that kind of appropriations. Oh, they’ll need the rocket one of these days and if it’s not ready the government will do the job, and they’ll turn to you, to private industry, to do it. Government always does that when it gets in a jam. It has to.

Heinlein also saw to it that the science in the film was accurate, and there are passages that are explicitly didactic, notably a film-within-the-film in which Woody Woodpecker explains Newton’s Third Law and why a rocket will work in the vacuum of space. (It will be remembered that Robert Goddard, the pioneer rocketeer of the 1920s, had to endure the contrary opining of the New York Times.)

The cartoon, the general, and the sage win over the group, though not before one of them has asked simply, “Why go there, Jim?” Barnes’s urgent reply isn’t “Because it’s there,” but it comes close: “We’ll know when we get there, and we’ll tell you when we get back.”

A number of pundits and scientists have been urging colonization of the moon and Mars as a hedge against the potential devastation of the human race from one good-sized asteroid.

Today, as luck would have it, industry happens to have produced a new generation of space-minded tycoons, fellows like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Paul Allen, and Robert Bigelow. And jumping out ahead of the pack in boldness (if not in spare change) is Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist. Tito has created the Inspiration Mars Foundation to promote and oversee a manned mission to Mars, planned to launch in January 2018. The very spartan 501-day journey would carry two astronauts around the planet in a close flyby and then return them to Earth. A flyby rather than a landing greatly simplifies the technical challenge of the mission and allows it to be done on a relative shoestring.

While a privately funded undertaking, the mission is not a commercial venture. Tito is quite certain that he will emerge from the project with much less wealth that he begins with. The Foundation explains that its purposes are:

To push the envelope of human experience, while reaching out to our youth to expand their views of their own futures in space exploration. Revitalizing interest among our students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education is a vital part of our overall mission. Our goal is to provide a platform for unprecedented science, engineering, and education opportunities.

These are all worthy goals. It will be interesting to see if the recent meteor event that lit up and briefly terrified Chelyabinsk, Russia, will draw support to the Mars project. A number of pundits and scientists have been urging colonization of the moon and Mars as a hedge against the potential devastation of the human race from one good-sized asteroid. It happened to the dinosaurs, after all. And then there’s that matter of climate change.

Impey Barbicane, in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865), was blasted into space with two companions from a giant cannon, like so much puffed wheat cereal. John Carter, the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pulp tales about Mars (from 1911), got there by some sort of astral projection. It was the technology of aeronautics that gave some plausibility to the adventures of Flash Gordon and Dr. Zarkov. We recall that when they ventured to Mars in 1938, it was in order to destroy the “nitron lamp” by which Ming the Merciless, emperor of the universe, was extracting that mysterious element from Earth’s atmosphere and in the process upsetting the weather, causing huge storms and drought and devastating floods and …


We — and by “we” I mean humanity — have been dreaming about flying to other planets for a long time. Before Neil Armstrong’s “small step for man” it was mere fiction. Now we can do it, if we want to. What we have needed is some sort of motivation amounting to a kick in the pants. Maybe now we have it.

Robert McHenry is former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica and is a contributing writer to THE AMERICAN. He is the author of How to Know.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes “Sweat and Honor,” “Death Panels, Revisited,” and “Reflections of a Casual Fan.” John Steele Gordon discusses “Voyager I at the Heliopause.” David Shaywitz says “Space: Still Cool after All These Years.”

Image Credit: Shutterstock: MarcelClemens