With the passing of Ray Bradbury, science fiction has lost one of its giants. I met him once when he came to Redlands University during Author’s Week. Unassuming, funny, down to earth, he inspired me to read everything that he had written—and when I came to The Martian Chronicles, I was enthralled with those golden-eyed people who had voices like music and with their crystal cities that soared to the sky!
I thought of Bradbury the other day when I heard about the plan to begin a settlement on Mars. A Dutch start-up company has announced Mars-1, a completely non-political project that hopes to send settlers to Mars. The ‘let’s send people to colonize Mars’ movement is hardly new, but Mars-1 is serious: it’s projected that in 2012 unmanned spacecrafts will be sent to the Red Planet so that robots can set up living quarters for four people. These space pioneers are slated to leave in Earth in September 2022 and after a 7-month long voyage, they will land on Mars. Every two years, more space-pioneers will arrive on the Red Planet, but no one will ever return home to Earth. Their tickets are for one way only.
Incredible, I thought, Oh, brave! These people would be willing to leave the earth and everything they knew behind. Those that they knew and loved would never shake their hands or hug them again. Oceans would be replaced by red dust. Mountains, green in spring and golden in the fall would be replaced by the arid Martian hills. The warmth of the sun would turn cold and the air thin. Instead of our Moon, there would be two smaller satellites in the Martian sky. When they died, these Martian settlers, they would be buried far away from home.
In the cold night sky
Would eyes seek distant light
Of the home once loved?
Such sacrifice! And yet, there is precedent. The men and women (and children) who made that historic voyage on the Mayflower knew that they were leaving behind everything they knew. They knew even less about the strange land they hoped to reach than the space-travelers of our century. The early pioneers realized that they would never come home again, that their loved ones would never see—or, likely even hear—from them again.
To say last farewells
To hold each other once more…
But– the promised land.
As a species we are dreamers and adventurers who need to seek out what we cannot understand. That is why scientists experiment and theorize, why writers create people and worlds that become real to those who read their books, and why artists shape paint or copper or marble to share a part of their personal vision. Now, our vision is turning toward Mars, and someday it will extend beyond Mars to Jupiter’s moons, or to the end of our galaxy. Perhaps future generations will find the galaxy as small as this electronic generation finds the earth today. Imagine skyping Europa, or sharing a great grand child of facebook with someone orbiting Neptune!
This is a good thing… isn’t it? Well, sure. But just as our curiosity and yearning for adventure has sent us into the unknown, there’s also that other and less pleasant motivation… greed.
Columbus couldn’t have ferried his ships across the unknown ocean were it not for Isabella’s desire for the riches of the East. Ponce de Leon and his ilk were not motivated by anything but a lust for wealth and conquest. So, have we changed in a few hundred years? When we reach for the stars, will the quest for knowledge and the hope for a new home be the sole inspirations for our space pioneers? Will there be other, less pleasant incentives?
Those who plan Mars-1 doubtless have the best of motives, but what of the future? Will there be conglomerates interested solely in mining precious ore from distant worlds? Wealthy businessmen who want to exploit the riches of another planet? A reprise of the gold-rush, this time to the stars?
So—perhaps it’s not going to depend so much on what these first space pioneers are willing to leave behind but on what human beings are going to carry with them into those brave new worlds.