Do you know who Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornieko are?
Do you know who Alan Shepard and Yuri Gagarin are? (I really hope you do.)
What about Neil Armstrong, does his name ring a bell?
How about Mark Watney, I am going to assume you have heard of him?
According to my basic internet / personal polling research most people know that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Yuri Gagarin was the first person in space, Alan Shepard was the first American in space, and Mark Watney is a fictional character who is stranded on Mars. Most people have no idea who Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornieko are, and that is a huge shame.
Astronaut Kelly and Cosmonaut Kornieko are just past the half way point of a year long mission on board the International Space Station. One of the goals of this mission is to determine what prolonged time in space does to the human body. Kelly and Kornieko volunteered to be human guinea pigs in our quest to travel farther into space, first stop Mars. Read all about their amazing mission here.
Andy Weir's sci-fi novel The Martian (and the recent Ridley Scott Film based on the book) tell the story of Mark Watney and how he survives on Mars when he is accidentally left behind (read this book, it is outstanding). The story is filled with real scientific scenarios based on the ideas we have about the hospitality of Mars. The realism of the book help make it, and the movie, a huge hit. It is not out of the realm of possibility to think that we could make a manned mission to Mars in the near future. There are still some very large issues to figure out, like how are we going to stop our Mars explorers from being cooked alive by radiation. We are working to figure out these problems, and the first human steps on a different planet are forthcoming. Humanity is on the verge if interplanetary travel.
The biggest leap of faith in Weir's book is the idea that NASA is well funded enough to support the cost of manned Mars missions. Americans always seem excited about the possibility of space travel, yet our government never has the will to commit money to the endeavor. The budget to run all of NASA in 2015 was approximately $885 million. The US congress has spent $5 million (and counting) on their admitted politically motivated Benghazi committee. The US house has spent northwards of $75 million trying to repeal Obamacare. The pointless never ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost at least $4 trillion, and that does not account for the medical care returning veterans will require. There have been billions of unaccounted for money the US has distributed all over Iraq and Afghanistan. A manned mission to Mars is estimated to cost around $100 billion. The point is that our government balks at the price tag for manned space exploration, yet they have no problem wasting money on politically motivated pet issues and other forms of fraud. The latest tea party hero, Jim Jordan of Ohio, costs the taxpayers around $120 million every year so his district can continue to manufacture tanks that the Army does not want. The fiscal conservatives halt NASA and our future, yet waste untold amounts of money on things that do not advance humanity.
Our government's lack of investment in space exploration contributes to the public's dismissive attitude about current space explorers. What Gagarin and Shepard did was dangerous and unknown. What Armstrong did was dangerous and inspiring. What Kelly, Kornieko, and all current space travelers do is dangerous and vital to our future. Mark Watney is more well known because The Martian is a great book, and the hero represents our hopes for what a future of interplanetary travel will look like. Weir's hero is dependent on what NASA has done, and will do. Our future on Mars has its genesis in what Kelly and Kornieko are doing on the International Space Station. We will get excited about Mars when we have heroes to root for. Our current astronauts are these heroes. They should be celebrated at least as much as a fictional character.
A manned mission to Mars is inspiring and necessary. People are flocking to read, and see, The Martian because it inspires hope and pride in humanity. The scientific discoveries made through the space programming are staggering. When President Kennedy told us we had ten years to land on the moon, the technology did not exist. Nine years later we landed on the moon and started a new computer revolution. We do not have the technology to walk on Mars, yet. When a strong leader emerges in our government, and we are challenged as a nation to rise up, we will see humans walk on Mars within our lifetimes. What great technical revolution will follow? Astronaut Mike Kelly and Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornieko are getting us ready to travel beyond the moon. Their work is paving the way for a future Mark Watney. We deserve to experience the awe and pride of interplanetary travel. We deserve a government that believes in the future.
Thanks to NASA.gov and Space.com for their help in my research. Seriously go read The Martian.
RD is the Head editor for SeedSing and the other host of the X Millennial Man podcast. He is wondering if Valentine Micheal Smith is waiting for us on Mars. Join the conversation by writing for SeedSing.