A green alien stares at an American flag on a distant planet.
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I recently took a trip to the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. It’s spectacular. Looking up at the massive skeletons of dinosaurs and examining ancient fossils is a humbling, exciting and troubling experience all at once. The great beasts I marveled at had wandered, and dominated, the planet for millions of years; their existence went up in flames, only to be discovered an eternity later by humans. The memory of their lost world survives solely in our museums and collective imagination.

I wondered, what will become of us? If we disappear into the great cosmic history like our reptilian predecessors, what legacy will remain? What will the aliens find of us when we’re gone?

The dinosaurs left behind nothing more than their natural components: bones, teeth and scales. But we create. The aliens will not puzzle at some dusty human femur or skull, but the things we’ve built. They’ll look at the skyscrapers, the flag on the Moon, the rovers on Mars and they’ll reflect: What could have happened? 

We won’t fall victim to nature like the dinosaurs. We’re too smart for that. Last September, NASA successfully crashed a satellite into an asteroid, forever changing its orbit. The rock that killed 70% of all life on Earth 65 million years ago would not be able to do so today. In 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and put the elderly and immunocompromised at high risk of hospitalization and even death. We devised a life-saving vaccine in a matter of months.

If we’re destined to become exhibits in alien museums, it will be by our own doing. The brilliant technology that protects us from the destructive force of nature has a destructive force of its own. The nuclear fission that provides energy to many of our cities also has the power to level them. With war raging in Europe and live fire military drills in East Asia, the potential for disaster caused by human technology is increasing.

So we may, instead, fall victim to ourselves. But, there is another way: We go to Mars. We pick up the mantle of our explorer ancestors, and we explore again. 

The Earth provides us with an atmosphere, fresh water and hospitable temperatures, but not a failsafe. If we fail here, we fail everywhere. Technology to travel to the Red Planet already exists or is in rapid development. Within the next two decades, a manned trip could be possible. The question is whether we choose to go.

According to Gallup, only 53% of U.S. adults support sending people to Mars. For the 46% in opposition, a variety of reasons exist. Cost, danger to human life and other priorities here on Earth have all been tossed around as counterpoints to the unprecedented journey. All are serious concerns, but concerns we must overcome.

The first is perhaps the easiest to pick apart. The privatization of the space industry has made potential interplanetary travel dramatically less expensive than in previous years. In 1969, the Saturn V Moon rocket departed from Earth at a cost of nearly $1.5 billion, adjusted for inflation. Only a capsule splashed back down. But new rockets and more efficient fuel systems, designed by companies like SpaceX, have put the era of wasted parts in the past. SpaceX’s Starship, meant to land humans on Mars, will be entirely reusable.

On risk to the astronauts, the naysayers have a point. Space is not a safe place. The seven months it currently takes to reach our extraterrestrial neighbor would expose the travelers to a hazardous amount of radiation, which remains high even on the surface of Mars. At present, we have no solution. Even with a possible protective shield, astronauts are still vulnerable to other unexpected crises. If the Apollo 13 mission failure had not happened so close to Earth, the crew may not have survived.

But we must not let the risks discourage us. With enough resources and enough smart people putting them to good use, we can solve the problem.

Earth has problems of its own, however, and resources may prove hard to come by. Nearly 12% of Americans live below the poverty line, and many more live just above it. To them, spending billions on a mission to another planet is hard to justify. For others, concerned by rising global temperatures and ocean acidification, funds seem better allocated addressing the climate crisis. Such views are understandable, but mistaken.

In a nation as wealthy as our own, we cannot become so preoccupied with looking inward that we forget to look outward. The situation on Earth is complex and difficult; I doubt Mars can change that. But it gives us an opportunity to dream again — to change our course as a species forever. 

The time is now. Engineering freshman Paden Stewart said he believes space exploration is essential for the future in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

“We will most likely have to (go to Mars), and it would be generally better to get any major exploration and or infrastructure done sooner rather than later,” Stewart said. 

He’s right. Let technology be the only limiting factor. If the technology allows it, let’s start landing equipment now. No politics or distractions.

If the aliens ever do come and we’re nowhere to be found, we can blame politics and distractions. Interplanetary travel will be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And with all the obstacles ahead, we’d be wise not to put more in our own way. It’s been too long since we’ve done the impossible.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in 1969, 600 million people watched on TV. One-fifth of the world’s population, from countries everywhere, stared at their screens in anticipation, collectively witnessing “one giant leap.” We took that leap and have not taken another since. With a country and a world as divided as our own, we need that unity again. To drop the fighting and the hatred, if only for a moment, and watch humanity do something great — together.

Jack Brady is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at jackrbra@umich.edu.