Communion Of Dreams


Not “Because it’s there.”

George Mallory, the famous British mountain climber who may or may not have been the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest, supposedly responded when asked by a New York Times reporter “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with “Because it’s there”.  This, in the spirit of the day, was understood to mean that it was a challenge to be conquered, man triumphing over nature.

When I was young, I found this quote to be inspirational. Aspirational. It was, I thought, the perfect explanation for doing the seemingly impossible. For pushing boundaries. For climbing higher than anyone had ever climbed before. Perhaps all the way to the Moon. And maybe one day, to the stars.

Half a century later, I have learned the wisdom of having goals — or, perhaps more accurately, motivations — which make more sense over the long run. Because while “because it’s there” may lead to a temporary triumph, it is hardly enough over the long haul.  If you want something to be more than just a moment of glory, captured forever in the record books but limited to only being in the record books, then you need something much more pragmatic.

So I was delighted to read this today, from Phil Plait’s visit to Elon Musk’s SpaceX factory and the question of why go to Mars:

Musk didn’t hesitate. “Humans need to be a multi-planet species,” he replied.

And pretty much at that moment my thinking reorganized itself. He didn’t need to explain his reasoning; I agree with that statement, and I’ve written about it many times. Exploration has its own varied rewards… and a single global catastrophe could wipe us out. Space travel is a means to mitigate that, and setting up colonies elsewhere is a good bet. As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the father of modern rocketry) said, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”

* * *

The overall atmosphere in the factory was one of working at a progressive company on an exciting project. Of course: They build rockets. But the feeling I couldn’t put my finger on before suddenly came into focus. The attitude of the people I saw wasn’t just a general pride, as strong as it was, on doing something cool. It was that they were doing something important. And again, not just important in some vague, general way, but critical and quite specific in its endgame: Making humans citizens of more than one world. A multi-planet species.

It’s easy to dismiss this statement, think of some snark as a way to minimize it and marginalize it as the thinking of a true believer. But—skeptic as I am—I’ve come to realize this is not minimal. It is not marginal. This is a real, tangible goal, one that is achievable. And SpaceX is making great strides toward achieving it.

That’s when I also realized that the initial question itself was ill-posed. It’s not why Elon Musk wants to get to Mars. It’s why he wants humanity to get there.

 

The Apollo Program was a phenomenal achievement. It was inspirational. Aspirational. But while it contributed many worthy technological advances, and led a whole generation of the best & brightest to go into science and engineering, there is a reason that there are still to this day only a dozen people who have ever walked on the Moon.

Musk’s goal is still visionary. And perhaps not pragmatic in the short term. But in the long term, species survival seems to be just about the most pragmatic goal humanity could have.

 

Jim Downey

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