Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 provoked widespread hand-wringing and bafflement over the failure of the space program to further manned space exploration, most obviously of Mars. So I was struck by a piece in Universe Today that related a former NASA engineer's proposal to facilitate the manned exploration of the red planet with a one-way, one-person mission.
The problem with going to Mars, as with (wo)manned space travel in general, entails risk and cost. Compared to past ages of exploration, when folks routinely set sail, disappeared into the jungle, or ventured to the poles at tremendous risk and often never to return, our society, perhaps due to instant media ubiquity of any disaster, arguably is more risk-averse, perhaps too much so to send astronauts on a highly perilous Martian adventure. Personally undertaken risk is one thing, but officially (or even globally) sanctioned risk is another. If the first group of astronauts were to die, pathetically and millions of miles out, but under anguished global scrutiny, the symbolic tragedy would be crushing.
The moon is some 250,000 miles from earth; Mars is some 36 million miles away at its closest, and the trip would take roughly 9 months one-way. That implies a lot of snacks and other materials to pack for multiple astronauts making a round-trip journey. And having to take off from Mars to return to Earth is a daunting challenge.
So the argument for a one-way, one-person mission is that of a much leaner and cheaper undertaking. The article mentions blandly that it could be seen as a suicide mission; well, of course it's a suicide mission in a way, but perhaps only in the way that life itself is a suicide mission, that is, no one gets out of here alive as the adage goes. But could one say that to be the first human being to walk on Mars would provide one extraordinary person with a life far more memorable and meaningful than many longer ones?
There is something atavistic about the notion; the lone traveller would be as a willing sacrifice, not to a god or dragon, but to humanity's desperate need to know and to explore at all cost. Would anyone volunteer? The question more properly is: how many thousands or even millions would volunteer? The line of daredevils, fanatics, depressives, and misfits would stretch for miles. Oh to be the shrink to decide who was most fit to go!
As the piece suggests, this speculative astronaut (although even in this post-feminist age, could it be other than a man?) would enter a strange realm of globally scrutinized solitude. He would become at once the most isolated human being in history in physical terms, and yet emotionally and cybernetically he would be crowded and enveloped by the wonder and curiosity of six billion.
Neil Armstrong has famously become a recluse, and so far as I saw took minimal part in the anniversary festivities. What does it do to a man to be the first to step on another world? On Mars one would see Earth not as a massive sphere, cloud-brushed and cerulean, rising gloriously over a bleak horizon, but as a faintly bluish dot wandering amid the stars. One would feel truly at the end of space and time. No way out.
What would the end point be? To allow oneself to succumb to dehydration and delirium, to see what waking dreams may come beneath the dim Martian sun? To scale Olympus Mons, the highest volcano in the solar system, and throw oneself melodramatically off? Or perhaps to find some cozy cave, where the frigid, airless, and lifeless Martian environment may preserve a human artifact, to be discovered by other, more fortunate explorers thousands of years in the future? A bit morbid, a bit freakish for NASA I fear; definitely not suited for prime time (but all the more interesting for that).