“Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at the stars because we are human?” – Neil Gaiman, Stardust
This is a quote from my favorite movie, Stardust. This quote has defined my life and, I believe, defines humanity as well. I, like every other person on this planet, was born curious. As a kid I marveled at many things on Earth (and off!): the way that the leaves of trees would change color with the seasons, the way that ants moved in cohesion, the way that my fingernails would grow or a glass would shatter when it fell off a table. The world around me was exciting and full of new things.
I, like all children, was born a scientist: curious. But something happens to many children as they grow up, something along the way subdues this natural inclination for discovery that keeps humans alive, that inspires new technology to advance our abilities and that creates new ways to do things. Keeping children curious and engaged in the quest for knowledge through their teen years and into adulthood is essential to the future of humanity. So the question is, how can we stop kids from losing the drive to discover new things and keep them engaged and excited about the world around them? I believe that we already have an answer: human space exploration.
Human space exploration has an incredible capacity to excite and inspire even the most curmudgeonly person. What will we find out there? How will life be different for us in 50 years? These are the same questions that humans have asked themselves every time they have ventured afar whether it be traveling to new continents, exploring the depths of our oceans, or exploring outer space. Humans have a drive to explore, to push further than they have gone before, to test our limits and challenge the impossible. It is the human drive to explore that kindles and nurtures the fire of curiosity in young people, and continues the will to produce future generations ready to do great things, just as those before them have done.
For the sake of the future of humanity here on Earth, we must put humanity elsewhere. We must send humans to Mars.
But space exploration isn’t enough. And even human space exploration isn’t enough. In order to inspire the next generation to stay curious and motivated to do great things, we must do great things now. We must push forward in human space exploration and challenge the impossible. We must set our minds to tasks that we have never before done. It is not enough to orbit the Earth, or send probes to other planets. For the sake of the future of humanity here on Earth, we must put humanity elsewhere. We must send humans to Mars.
So why Mars? What is it about Mars that will inspire and excite young people to stay interested in STEM? Mars is far away. It’s hostile, without a breathable atmosphere, protection from radiation, or usable water. But it’s exactly these hellish conditions that make Mars a desirable destination for our next giant steps as humankind. Mars is a challenging journey, which will push our understanding of our solar system, our knowledge of what we are capable of accomplishing, and our scientific and technological abilities. Mars is just difficult enough to provide us with the challenge humans need to keep pushing ourselves to innovate and advance our own abilities on earth. While Mars provides a challenge beyond anything humans have ever taken on before, it is a challenge that we are capable of taking on and being successful.
Mars is the logical next step in human space exploration. Just as the Moon was a giant step for humankind in the 1960s and provided generations with inspiration to dream big and do great things, human Mars exploration will do that during my lifetime. We have the capability to send humans to Mars, and even more importantly, we have the obligation to do so. It is our duty to take on this challenge whole-heartedly, to inspire a new generation of kids to stay curious, and in doing so, to create a better future. We are the Mars generation, and this is our future.
This piece is part of a special op-ed series, curated in partnership with Explore Mars, in which contributors from diverse fields such as science, education, policy, business and culture answer a simple question: “Why Mars?” For more, follow the links below or visit exploremars.org.