In the movie “The Martian,” there’s a scene that always makes me giddy with wonder and what-ifs.
Matt Damon’s character, accidentally left behind on the Red Planet by his fellow astronauts, is talking to himself while bouncing around the desert, alien mountains rising behind him into an airless sky.
“I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet,” he says. Then he runs down the list of firsts. “Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years!”
Sure, it’s science fiction, but I’ve always suspected that, one day, it would become science fact. That day, it seems, is nearly here.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk predicts that he can send a fleet of at least 1,000 ships to Mars within a decade – “like ‘Battlestar Galactica’” – and colonize the planet within 100 years. And now Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, is saying something similar.
“I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket,” he said Tuesday. Your move, Elon.
It seems the next phase of the Space Race is on, only this time it’s being run by competing corporations instead of competing governments. But that’s OK. Just as in the Cold War era, Musk and Muilenburg are offering hope at a dark time – the home stretch of a presidential election in which Republican nominee Donald Trump has been unleashing streams of stunningly ignorant remarks almost daily.
If ever there were a month to remember the bigger picture, that humans are destined for greater things than hurling petty insults and waging wars, this is certainly it. Besides, there’s nothing like the small-minded thinking of national politics to make you appreciate the high-minded thinking that so often comes from California scientists and dreamers.
Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, Musk said SpaceX will send colonists to the Red Planet in massive, reusable spacecraft. Booster rockets fueled with methane will launch the ships into orbit. The booster rockets will then return to Earth, pick up fuel tankers and return to orbit to fuel the spacecraft. From there, the trip will take 115 days.
Chicago’s Boeing is taking a more measured approach, first building orbiting factories and a lunar testing site.
Either way, the commercial space industry is clearly the next frontier. Musk was right when he said that becoming “a multiplanetary species” is the right thing to do. Otherwise, if we stay on Earth forever, there will certainly be some doomsday event to render our species extinct.
Let’s just pray it’s not a President Trump, his small finger pushing the button. That’s a what-if that’s better not to contemplate.