Why Mars

I don’t have a lot of patience, frankly, with the “Why Mars” question. If someone doesn’t get it when you say, “because it’s cool”, then there’s little hope for a deeper conversation.

“Because it’s cool” isn’t really the complete answer, of course, just a shorthand for the richness of of the human experience of gathering new knowledge, but if people don’t get the “cool” part, they’re probably not going to get the deeper issue of the centrality of acquisition of knowledge to the human experience.

I’m reminded of this by friend Jim, who passed along a link to Oliver Morton’s crack at this. I didn’t know Morton’s work before, but now I’m a fan. It’s a long version of something Morton did for Newsweek on the question, and it nicely encapsulates the curiosity that drives the Mars people:

This piece doesn’t talk about life: it just talks about some of the reasons why Mars fascinated people more than most other things in the sky. So it’s an indirect answer to so-whatters: it explains why others find the subject interesting, but doesn’t try to justify that interest.

The piece is great, and Morton gets huge bonus points for a wonderfully turned Garbo/Lucille Ball metaphor. Go read it.


  1. This question is easy – ask any mountaineer why they climb mountains and they will give you Sir Edmund Hilary’s classic answer: “Because its there”

  2. I think another important reason for going to Mars, in addition to the sheer thrill of charting the unknown, is simply to improve Mankind’s spaceflight ability. The more we practice, the better we’ll get at it and the more our technology will improve. In the future spaceflight may be significantly more important than “just exploring for the sake of exploring”. Our survival may depend on it.

  3. The people who don’t understand this are the ones that don’t get a thrill seeing the huge hi-res images of *another planet* coming to us over the internet. It’s not a soundstage, or a virtual world, but high tech gagets created here on earth are ON ANOTHER PLANET. That’s very cool, and if they don’t see that, or more importantly, *feel* it, then they probably never will.

  4. I think that most developers, when asked what is the easiest way to learn a set of APIs, will respond by writting an interesting program using those APIs.

    Things like the small lunar base being built in an attempt to reach mars are very important just in general for space flight. Yet those things wouldnt get built unless there is a motivating factor. So if the motivating factor of improving this area is now mars, then great.

    Take a look at the exploration of the sea. There really arn’t that many of advancements in terms of the amount of money that gets spent on it, etc…
    The reason is because its ‘boring’ and unexciting. So they find another type of fish? The average person wont care unless it either edible or will look cool in an aquarium.

    This is the same reason the moon hasn’t been touched in such a long time. We got there, great! Now its just a boring peice of rock. The way they are making it interesting is by using mars as a motivator.

  5. My question is not “why Mars” but “why now?” and “why this, over feeding the hungry, curing cancer, or stopping AIDS?” (Well, I guess those would require politically inconvenient science like common sense economics and nutrition, genetic research, and promoting the use of condoms, all of which our current administration opposes.)

    Yes, I want space travel to work. I want to strip-mine the moon as much as the next guy. But come on, we haven’t got the cash right now because we’ve given it all to people making over $350k/year already, and if we give it to NASA we’d basically be giving it to a dysfunctional, wasteful organization.

    If you want to give a boost to basic research, double the direct research budgets and give money to schools. Asking NASA to fly to Mars is asking for another shuttle disaster and ten or fifteen more “dead heroes” to mourn, which I suppose will take the public’s mind off the fact that they’re being screwed out of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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