Communion Of Dreams


The one thing you know.

There is one thing, absolutely, that you know – but most people don’t really believe it. That you are alive, and that you are going to die.

“Wait!” you say, “That’s two things!”

No, it’s not. Life and death are two aspects of the same thing. It is the fundamental duality of our nature. Now, the first part of that equation is generally accepted, but the second part is widely denied – hence the desire to split it into two separate items.

But it hasn’t always been like this. Most of human history, people have understood the connection – they were familiar and comfortable with death (even if it wasn’t to be desired). I’d even go so far as to say that much of the world today is still this way. It is really only in the last couple-three generations that those in the richer countries have lost a day-to-day connection with death.

Now, I lost my parents in my early adolescence, one to violence and the other to accident. I came to understand death, and mortality, just at the time when my world view was being shaped, just as I was developing the ability to understand the world in abstract terms. This made me different than most of my contemporaries, though more like how most humans have existed through history. Even through my crazy teen years I never once thought that I would live forever – I had no illusions that death could come suddenly and unexpectedly, and that it would eventually come no matter what I might try to do to postpone it. And while most people come to eventually accept death intellectually, I think that without experiencing it as part of your understanding of the world, you tend to never really internalize it. The more people live with death – whether because of growing up with it, or being immersed in it due to war or disaster – the more they tend to understand and accept it. In insulating ourselves, and our children, from the experience of real death, I think we have cheated ourselves of an understanding of it.

And those things we do not understand – in our gut – we fear. And too often, those things we fear, we deny.

OK, so what am I going on about, talking about death here on this nice, bright, pleasant (but a bit cold) Saturday morning?

This: Universe Today ran a piece a couple of days ago about a proposal by Jim McLane, a NASA engineer of over 20 years who now works for a private engineering firm, to do a one-person, one-way trip to Mars. From the article:

A return to the “get it done” attitude of the 1960’s and a goal of a manned landing within a short time frame, like Apollo, is the only way we’ll get to Mars, McLane believes. Additionally, a no-return, solo mission solves many of the problems currently facing a round-trip, multiple person crew.

“When we eliminate the need to launch off Mars, we remove the mission’s most daunting obstacle,” said McLane. And because of a small crew size, the spacecraft could be smaller and the need for consumables and supplies would be decreased, making the mission cheaper and less complicated.

While some might classify this as a suicide mission, McLane feels the concept is completely logical.

“There would be tremendous risk, yes,” said McLane, “but I don’t think that’s guaranteed any more than you would say climbing a mountain alone is a suicide mission. People do dangerous things all the time, and this would be something really unique, to go to Mars. I don’t think there would be any shortage of people willing to volunteer for the mission. Lindbergh was someone who was willing to risk everything because it was worth it. I don’t think it will be hard to find another Lindbergh to go to Mars. That will be the easiest part of this whole program.”

Now, some variation of this idea has been kicked around previously, even going back to the early days of thinking about getting someone to the Moon. McLane is to be credited with pushing the idea, but it isn’t really original. I’ve seen variations of the idea in SF as well.

Read the column. There is some fudging about whether or not this is really a suicide trip, or whether future tech would allow for the eventual return of the participant, or that this first person would be the initial colonist for an outpost.

But what I found particularly interesting – and insightful – were the attitudes displayed in the extensive comments (almost 200 at the time I am writing this). You only need to sample these to find out that a lot of people are saying that it would be just horrid to “condemn someone to die” for a pointless trip to Mars.

Folks, here’s a reminder: we’re all already condemned to die. Only the timing and manner of our death is unknown.

Plenty of people do things that they know will carry a high risk of death. Some do it for a thrill – there is a decided adrenalin rush in thinking you are going to die (and I think that this explains the popularity of both horror flicks and various games where ‘death’ is a possibility). But for those who understand death, they engage in these risks with an acceptance that while death may come to them, the goal is still worthy. They might be misguided, or misinformed, miscalculating either the amount of risk or the worthiness of the goal. But they are nonetheless making a choice that is not reflected out of fear or ignorance of death – rather, it is saying that they think that the possible timing and manner of their death is worth changing for the goal.

Because that is all you are actually doing when you take any kind of additional risk: saying, effectively, that you are willing to sacrifice some additional time living. You are *not* saying that you are willing to accept non-existence versus existence.  We are not “immortal unless killed” – we are going to die, sooner or later, in the fullness of time.  Get that in your head, and then deciding to do something like take a one-way ticket to Mars doesn’t seem so daunting.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi.  Cross-posted to UTI.)


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[…] Who will die? May 5, 2008, 2:52 pm Filed under: Emergency Well, we all will, unless there’s some sort of miracle breakthrough in medicine or technology. But that’s […]

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