Every so often I come staggering out of the woods with twigs in what’s left of my hair and caterpillars angling up my socks and my eyeballs dilated and aiming in different directions with notions of disappearing insects and birds and insidious technologies. Lately under my rock near the cedars, I am being tortured by the fact that I’m never going to step foot on Mars.

President Trump last year touted his desire for the U.S. to land astronauts on Mars, suggesting he was placing new emphasis there, although his directive was exactly the same as President Obama’s, except for a replacement paragraph about the moon with no specific language about when “human missions to Mars and other destinations” might take place. A few months later, NASA admitted it hasn’t got the money to send humans to Mars. Meanwhile the president has decided to have a Space Force. It’s not clear he understands it would be cyberwarfare-oriented, not combating aliens in X-wing fighters.

If Obama’s more specific projection for humans tripping to Mars about 15 years from now should actually happen, then there’s an outside chance I’ll be around to watch it on TV. If so, I’ll be glad to take that as my participation in it. But based on experience, I sort of doubt that’s coming.

This is not what I — or practically anybody else — in about 1968 would have predicted for 50 years later. In January 1960, Science News reported on space experts confident that humans could land on Mars within 10 years. Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer who famously missed by one month his early-1950s prediction of when humans would step on the moon (Armstrong and Aldrin landed July 20, 1969), imagined fully functioning lunar towns by 2001. As a teenager, around the time Apollo 8 was circling the moon, I was thinking I might be on one of the Mars missions. In the 1970s I still sort of assumed people would be living there in prefab space-age hovels by The Year 2000, an ominous-sounding date. It was still the New Frontier.

Somehow, though, that has all gone away except in empty political rhetoric and start-and-stop planning based on wishful thinking inside NASA. Trump has no more idea what, if anything, the next few governments will do about Mars than I do.

The problem has been how to spend our public money. Banks, stockbrokers and insurance companies think they should have most of it. As long as there’s no money to be made in outer space, they’re going to steer cash toward themselves, which is to say, downward into dust. Another political voice says poverty should be cured before we waste public money on frivolous trips to space nowhere. This argument makes more moral sense than the moneymakers make, but the trouble is, as Jesus indicated, if we follow it we’ll never be going anywhere.


Why should money go to NASA rather than to struggling oil, insurance and pharmaceutical companies who are always dangerously on the brink of missing their profit projections, or to food and medicine for poor people?

I can answer this question. But to accept it, you have to agree to one minor point: That the universe is larger than what we see with our eyes and instruments.

This should be easy to accept because 1) for those of us who live in the modern world, science already accepts this is true (e.g., 96 percent of the universe is thought to be composed of undetected “dark matter”) and 2) even if you literally believe that the world is only 5,000 years old, you still believe God is bigger than anything you can see.

So no matter how you look at it, more is going on than meets the eye. Among the most elusive things that are strictly speaking invisible, but real, are the complexities of the mind — emotions, moral feelings, intuitions, dreams, psychologies of all kinds — that if left unnourished or even unattended turn out bad. In some cases, really bad. Whether damaged psychologies can all be effectively treated by chemicals remains to be seen. I doubt it. But even if they could, the world still gives shape and health — or ill health — to people’s minds, emotions, imaginative and intuitive lives, and so on. And as our minds go, so goes the nation.

So we have to take care of our minds. That is what education is about: Shaping minds so they can function healthily, productively and richly. (What “richly” means is an important point that has to be taken up another time.) We have to take care of our bodies, too, of course, and that’s where the argument for providing food and shelter to poor people before exploring space has validity.

But exploring is an important human activity. Elon Musk, with his rocket programs, seems to understand this. It’s a component of shaping healthy, productive, rich minds, and in turn, healthy, productive, rich cultures. There are all kinds of exploring. From poking around in the woods, to testing your endurance against mountaintops, to cutting footprints on the moon. The larger the leap for a human, the larger the leap for humankind.

A “leap” is made in all sorts of ways. From thinking through the theory of relativity, to sending off a handful of people to Mars, to coming out from under some bo tree or Walden Pond hut or other wilderness with Ten Commandments or suras for a Quran.

Exploration is the opposite of a frivolous game. It is an essential component of the health of human beings. Both literally and figuratively, the sky’s the limit. But for some reason which involves avarice, we have stopped going there. And we are showing distinct signs of malnutrition.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His recent book is “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods.” Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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