#2. Life, Part 2: Life!
Specifically, alien life. Let me back up ...
In the '60s, there was a race to the moon. And thank God America won, because otherwise, well, nothing. But thank God someone won, because it inspired a whole new generation of scientists, and championed a new era of space exploration and scientific discovery. At least, that's what we are told and that's what we tell ourselves. In reality, not many people gave a shit about the moon landing after the fact. Many were glad it happened, but still thought it was a waste of money. After all, that's valuable lip balm money we could be spending.
But one thing is true about the moon landing: Everyone remembers where they were when it happened. It's the only wonderful event of the last century about which we can say that. Everything else was a tragedy of some kind. I remember where I was on September 11, my parents remember where they were when Kennedy was shot and my grandparents remember where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Everyone remembers where they were when a human being walked on the freaking moon.
Remember me? Impressed yet? Please?
There has been no event like that since, and it apparently didn't even have much of an effect on the country. We went to the moon, played a little golf, and then stopped caring. Tonight's Curiosity landing certainly won't be able to come close to matching that, but it's at least a precursor to something that could change the planet's mind. No, I don't mean a manned mission to Mars, even though I think that would be absolutely incredible seriously holy shit a person walking on Mars that's nuts let's do it ... ahem. Even though I think that, it won't have a huge impact on the public. The only thing that will get people truly excited and ready to take the next giant leap for mankind is part one of the Curiosity's two-fold mission: 1) To find evidence of life beyond planet Earth and 2) Bleep bloop I am a robot what means "love"?
Former life on Mars is not at all unlikely. There is water frozen on Mars, and the remnants of an atmosphere. Scientists believe that billions of years ago, Mars looked more like this:
Unfortunately, the planet's magnetosphere disappeared, which means solar winds scorched the planet and got rid of most of its atmosphere, making it the cold red rock it is today. Basically, Mars most likely used to be a smaller version of Earth, but the Universe gave it the business and everything went to shit. It went the way Earth could go. It's even possible that life here began on Mars. At one point, asteroids bombarded Mars' surface, as well as our own. Bacteria are able to survive in the cold radiated vacuum of space, so it is possible that life was transferred from a planet that didn't work onto a planet that did work, for at least a little while longer. We should find great comfort in that. If an asteroid ends up slamming into Earth and destroying life here, it is possible that a chunk of us, of life, will fly off into space to find a new home. Maybe an asteroid of bacteria will crash through the icy crust of Europa, and life will begin in the warm waters near its core. Maybe [millions of other possibilities]. Life goes on.
Or maybe we won't find life at all, ever. That's just as possible. But if we do, it will be the single most important discovery in the history of the planet. And it's not a huge leap to get there. All it takes is a "yes" to go from nothing to "the most important thing ever." That seems worth it. But no matter what the answer is, we should still feel compelled to expand into the cosmos. If we are the only life in the universe, then we are letting the universe down by not securing our survival. If we aren't the only life in the universe, then we are letting ourselves down by not exploring the vast, magical playground we have been given. Life, the universe and most importantly life within the universe are too important to ignore anymore. Below is a photo that has made its rounds on the Internet. It compares very, very small things to very, very big things.
There is no mistaking the similarities, and hopefully no mistaking the implications. Not that there is a "higher power", but that there is meaning and purpose in and outside of us, and the Universe is daring us to discover it. And these similarities don't stop at the above three. Independent of the theory that life on Earth came from Mars, it is suspected that asteroids are factories for the building blocks of life, like amino acids. The theory is basically that an asteroid crashed into Earth and brought with it all of the things life needed in order to begin.
To quote Neil deGrasse Tyson again, "We are in the universe, and the universe is in us." We have a connection and perhaps a purpose here, within us and without us. There is a popular theory called the heat death of the universe, referring to the ultimate end of everything. The universe reaches maximum entropy, and everything cools, slows and stops, because that's how physics works. What this theory doesn't seem to account for is the most amazing part of the known universe: life. Life makes choices that the rules of the universe do not affect. Life creates technology and generates motion and heat. Given the discovery of the Higgs, life may even be able to create mass someday. Given time, we have no idea what we will be capable of. So, given life's ability to step out of and manipulate the laws of the universe, could one say life does have a purpose? Could the purpose of life in the universe be to keep the universe alive?
#1. OK, Fine. Oil?
As much as I wish things like "amazement" were enough to push us into a new age of cosmic discovery and exploration, I understand that they won't. The moon landing wasn't about the survival of our planet. It wasn't about the wonder of the cosmos or the desire to understand our place in the universe. It was about the Soviet Union, and war. We didn't care so much about space after we landed on the moon because our goal had been achieved. We beat the Soviet Union. Yay. The end.
In a presentation at the International Space Development Conference in 2006, Neil Tyson used the following chart to display the only real motivators behind large global or national projects:
Discovery and exploration will probably never be on that list. In 2010, NASA's budget was about $8.7 billion. In its entire history from 1958 to 2011, the total budget was $526.18 billion. In 2010, the U.S. military budget was $663.85 billion. That means that in one year, the military spent $137.67 billion more than NASA has in more than 50. So despite the fact that Earth is in constant need of defense from the dangerous universe, I guess "defense" will no longer be a reason to pursue a space program. Unless of course China double dog dares us to meet them by the flagpole after school, on Mars.
We live in a world very different from that of pharaohs and popes, and I highly doubt "praise of power" is likely. So unless something drastic changes and "science" or "destiny" finally makes the list, we can safely assume that "promise of economic return" will be the driving force behind the future of our space program. You can put a price on Curiosity, but you can't get a profit from curiosity, because the exchange rate of dollars to wonderments is just too whimsical.
What I'm getting at is that I'm incredibly excited for the new Mars rover to land for many reasons, but mostly I really hope it finds some sweet, sweet oil. It's definitely possible, given how long ago Mars had an ocean and was primed for life. Part of Curiosity's mission is to search for oil, or natural gas, or anything that could be used as fuel. Oil wouldn't even have to mean that life once lived on Mars. There are still theories that abiogenic petroleum is possible, as well as natural gas created from non-biological means.
Of the top ten global companies by revenue, six of them are oil and gas companies. In 2010, the total revenue between them was approximately $2.1 trillion. If there is more oil outside of planet Earth, you better believe billions upon billions of dollars will be spent to get at it. If oil has to be the reason, then oil will be the reason. Because we need something. Some reason to invest in the creation of faster, safer, stronger and better space exploration. With that will most likely come a plethora of discoveries that could better the lives of everyone here on Earth. Maybe we can bring water from elsewhere to those who need it here. There will be more resources, and more uses for those resources. When you spend tens of billions of dollars to figure out how to live in space, you will ultimately make living on Earth a whole lot better and easier in the process. Spiritually, physically, mentally and even economically, humanity will skyrocket.
But anyway. I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.
After flying through space for about eight months, a robot might land on Mars tonight.
Author's addendum: Hooray.
For more from Cody, check out Advanced Batman Theory: Why Nolan Should've Killed Bruce Wayne and The 12 Most Baffling Genres of Stock Photo, Explained.