Mars - Graveyard for Billionaires?

NASA has just trotted out their latest astronomically expensive plan to put people on Mars. This scaled down scheme will only cost $10 billion but there’s a catch - you can’t come back. Instead the space agency is planning to send a select few on a one way trip to establish a permanent colony on the Red Planet, bankrolled by the world’s wealthiest humans.

“You heard it here. We hope to inveigle some billionaires to form a Hundred Year Starship fund,” announced Pete Worden, Director of NASA’s AMES Research Centre to a well-healed audience in San Francisco.

Google founder and prominent billionaire Larry Page is among those thinking about opening his chequebook and perhaps packing his bags.

“Larry asked me a couple weeks ago how much it would cost to send people one way to Mars and I told him $10 billion and his response was, ‘can you get it down to 1 or 2 billion’,” recounted Worden. “So now we’re starting to get a little argument over the price.”

No one is yet suggesting that billionaires who ante up towards this venture would themselves get a seat on the spacecraft, but as they say, there’s no free lunch…

The hitherto secret plan to send select humans to colonize another world not surprisingly involves the Pentagon. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is researching “breakthrough” space travel technologies with NASA, possibly paid for by the world’s richest:

“A key element of the study is exploring models by which sustained co-investment by the private sector in these areas can be incentivized. The study is currently in the early formulation stage, but will be entirely open and unclassified, with more details forthcoming in early 2011.”

With unemployment in the US closing on 10 percent and millions more in danger of losing their homes, why is spending billions sending humans on a one-way trip to Mars suddenly a priority? According to the authors of a recent paper, humanity is in danger of being snuffed out from a laundry list of perils, including:  

“…Global pandemics, nuclear or biological warfare, runaway global warming, sudden ecological collapse and supervolcanoes Thus, the colonization of other worlds is a must if the human species is to survive for the long term.”

Given almost all of these ills are caused by humans, it seems it’s our planet that needs saving instead of us. A study released last week found fully one fifth of the world’s species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles are being pushed towards extinction by our collective lack of restraint.

This disposable worldview now seems to extend to the very world that nurtured us.  Rather than invest the necessary resources to protect the unbelievable bounty we inherited here on Earth, some seem to think that it’s a better idea to throw in the towel on this world and scratch out an existence in the barren dust of Mars.

That Star Trek fantasy is not merely delusion - it is the leading rationale over the last ten years for gutting Earth observation programs at the space agency. Until the suicide Mars mission was hatched this week, NASA was committed to spending somewhere between $300 billion and $1 trillion trying to send humans to the Red Planet and hoping they make it back alive. This, while the Earth Sciences program at the space agency was in a state of near collapse.

Even today, the DSCOVR spacecraft remains in a box, ten years and $100 million after it was built to provide critical data on climate change. If it was ever launched, this groundbreaking experiment might finally be able to balance our planet’s energy budget, but for now it awaits a whiff of political will and less than one percent of the funding that NASA is now considering spending on a one-way trip to Mars.

I have a hunch that if they ever get there, the handful of Martian pioneers marooned 36 million miles away will learn the hard way that there is no place like home.