Why go to Mars?

Martian landscape, courtesy of NASA

Mars, courtesy of NASA

It’s easy to forget that NASA maintains a publicly stated goal of sending a human to Mars in the 2030s.  I go back and forth on whether Mars would be worthwhile, given everything else we might want to do.  Faced with a couple of multi leg flights, I recently put several new books on my phone.  One of them was Andy Weir’s The Martian, and right now it’s a lot harder for me to sit on the fence about Mars.  I really want us to go. 

The Martian is a straightforward survival adventure story about an astronaut left behind by his teammates after a freak accident.  Left without means of communication, Mark Watney still believes he has a shot at surviving, thanks to supplies sent for future missions and his expertise in engineering and botany.  The descriptions of Watney’s improvisations and the obstacles he overcomes are extensive.  When he decides that the cramped conditions in his rover are likely to become unbearable, we follow along as he chooses the materials for a tent like sleeping annex, completes a prototype, tests it, repairs it, and weighs the pros and cons of his new routine. 

Some readers have found this dull, and some have complained about the lack of character development in this novel.  I think the novel does exactly what it’s supposed to, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Weir is actually rather clever about how he carefully widens our view of events.  Wouldn’t it be missing the point to make such a criticism of A Journal of the Plague Year or “To Build a Fire”?

Compared with The Martian, other works of science fiction, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series, appear baggy and out of touch with reality.  They start in the far future, making all sorts of assumptions about the tough process of getting into space, let alone living there, in order to lay the groundwork for grandiose plots.  This novel does the opposite.  If we do go to Mars, the most important thing won’t be strange new politics or new forms of warfare, and in any case, it will be a very long time before we get to have those.  The idea of flying to Mars doesn’t need epic justifications; exploration, like the simple will to go on living, doesn’t require them.  At first I was a little put off by Watney’s joking, vernacular tone.  He won me over, though.  If Weir has a message, beyond sheer love of exploration, it’s that even one person’s facing such an extreme challenge will make everyone better and more caring.