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An Open Letter to Felix Baumgartner

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Dear Mr. Felix Baumgartner,

A few weeks ago, while sitting in a literary festival surrounded by books, I watched you jump out of a balloon and sail through the air. You broke more than records and more than the sound barrier. You broke into the imagination and spirit of millions of people. Imagine! One man at the edge of space, looking into the distance. Your adventure captured us. How many people hope to be doing something so daring? How many armchair adventurers only dream of such heights? You are a hero. You stood at the edge and jumped back to Earth while others hope to stand at the edge and jump out further, to the Moon, to Mars and beyond.

In a recent interview, you mentioned this very impulse to explore but instead of advocating for it, you disapproved by saying,

I think we should perhaps spend all the money [which is] going to Mars to learn about Earth. I mean, you cannot send people there because it is just too far away. That little knowledge we get from Mars I don't think it does make sense.

I disagree. I am a book editor and over the last few months have been working on a book called American Dreamers. This book is a collection of dreams, ideas and visions for a brighter future. Many leaders and innovators have contributed. One of the key themes in the book is about the value of space exploration. I had the honor of speaking with some visionaries in the field of space and Mars, including Dr.Charles Elachi of NASA/JPL, Dr. Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society and Dr. Cameron M. Smith, an anthropology professor building a space suit in his living room. Claire L. Evans shared her idea that Mars exploration represents something grander for humanity than just a robot on distant soil.

Learning About Mars Has Value

Learning about Mars and our solar system is valuable. It seems that you only look at one aspect -- the science -- and deem it unworthy. The science of Mars is not just for Mars; it has an impact for our own planet. For example, we know water once existed on Mars. What happened to it? We can learn about climate change and atmospheric trouble by studying a planet that appears to have undergone radical transformation. While the science has so much value in and of itself (finding out the possible origins of life, exploring climate change, etc.), we also gain much from the inspiration.

Look at the impact moon exploration had on culture in the 1960s. A whole generation of kids grew up wanting to be astronauts. Few of them achieved this dream but they traded it to be scientists, doctors, engineers, and inventors. Dr. Zubrin told me that the inspiration we can gain from Mars is boundless; we need the challenges. "Society grows when we are challenged. We stagnate when we are not challenged," he said.

The humans to Mars program would send out an invigorating challenge, particularly to the youth of every country that participates. Out of that challenge we would get millions of young scientists, engineers, inventors, doctors, medical researchers, and technological entrepreneurs.

How can we put a cost on that? How can we deny the value?

The Cost Is Not Too High

You criticized the cost of exploration when you said, "People should decide 'are you willing to spend all this money to go to Mars?' I think the average person on the ground would never spend that amount of money -- they have to spend it on something that makes sense and this is definitely saving our planet." But the cost is worth it. Dr. Elachi pointed out in his interview that the cost of the Curiosity project alone was "less than a dollar a year per person over seven years." The price was, "less than a ticket to a movie and look at the excitement and inspiration and spirit it created. Fifteen million Americans watched that landing on the JPL and NASA websites." It seems that you are not looking at the cultural benefits as well. One dollar a year per citizen for a rover on Mars is amazing but that dollar also paid for children to marvel at our capabilities, for humans to see beyond the edges, for each of us to think about our future.

Investing in JPL and NASA and Mars is also investing in future generations. Putting funds into science shows a dedication to intellect and experimentation. Providing the resources for students to dig into The Universe makes life on Earth all the better. It pushes us forward, triggers inventions, medical breakthroughs, environmental discoveries, green technologies, and so much more than just Martian soil samples.

Mars Is Not Too Far

The Curiosity rover took only nine or so months to reach Mars. We can expect a human trip to take close to this time. But it is the distance and the challenge that makes it worth it. The struggle is in our DNA. Where would we be if Lewis and Clark had said the destination was too far? Where would we be if Roald Amundsen had thought the North Pole too far? We do not explore because it is easy or close or within reach. John F. Kennedy expressed this in 1962 during his famous speech at Rice University:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

The distance he spoke of was the Moon. Our new destination is further. "Mars is not the final destination," says Dr. Zubrin, "it is the direction."

The knowledge we get from Mars makes total sense because it allows us to learn about ourselves. The Apollo astronauts who circled the Moon for the first time had no idea what to expect when the Earth began to rise over the lunar landscape. That sight overcame them. The view of Earth, distant and small on the horizon of a new land created a new way to see ourselves. Dr. Cameron Smith told me that "Historians have attributed the start of the environmental movement to those pictures of Earth from Apollo, the first Earthrise. You could see the whole thing. It is surrounded by emptiness." Imagine what might happen when we look back home from a Martian landscape. If we can achieve that what else can we achieve? I think you sell short the value of Mars. I hope for a future of exploration of Mars and beyond. It can only be positive.

Claire L. Evans contributed a gorgeous essay for our book, in which she connects our exploration to more than just science. She says,

We no longer relied on the limited capacities of our individual memories, nor did we quite fully trust the bounded senses of our apparatus; free to back ourselves up and reach ourselves further outward, we extended our reach. We also loosened the definition of 'we.'

You argue that the money spent on Mars should be spent on us. But spending money on Mars is spending money on us. Dedicating resources to these pursuits has and will only benefit us. We grew as a global culture after Apollo. We marveled after Curiosity. How much more will we expand as a people when we set foot on a new planet? We will, as Claire says, be intergalactic and no longer confined to one place. We will have the choice to see our boundaries broadened, no longer fighting over earthly borders. When our edges are among the planets, those on Earth will hopefully seem less and less important.

And so, I see you as a hero but hope you will see Mars in a new light, one of options and chances for humanity. I have been inspired by hearing from these scientists, writers, and dreamers and know our culture can also progress from these leaps into the unknown. I know we can follow in your path and go to the edge, but I also hope we go further.

Sincerely,

Jake Dockter

The interviews referred to in this piece are from the forthcoming book, American Dreamers. For more info visit makesharpstuff.com or follow them on Twitter, @MakeSharpStuff.