As the year 2002 draws to an end, your Administration is preoccupied with the prospect of war with Iraq, and with a more shadowy adversary in the form of global terrorism. Much has been said in that context about 'weapons of mass destruction.' It goes without saying that such weapons are the products of science and technology; one might say they are perversions of science and technology. What could be more pressing than finding a way to promote the beneficial aspects of science while curbing the misuse?
I do not wish to repeat here the well worn arguments about defensive versus offensive military research, the development of better sensor and detection technology and more efficient intelligence gathering systems. Arms races have dogged mankind from the dawn of history, and history seems bound to repeat itself.
What America, indeed the world, needs most urgently is a positive and uplifting project, a project born of a vision that transcends the factional squabbles that divide us, something to celebrate the creative side of science by the world's greatest scientific power. Forty years ago, when the world was in the grip of the Cold War, the United States committed itself to putting a man on the moon. Although the Apollo program was undeniably a by-product of the Cold War arms race, viewed with hindsight it was the crowning achievement of twentieth century science and engineering. Apollo continues to stand as an emblem for the triumph of the human spirit in a world dominated by dark fears and ideological divisions.
What, then, should be the Apollo program of the Bush Presidency? The answer has been clear since your own father articulated the concept in 1989. The United States, together with its partners in space, should commit to sending an expedition to the planet Mars. The Red Planet is probably the only body in the solar system on which a permanent self-sufficient colony might eventually be established. Although relatively hostile to humans, the surface of Mars is far more congenial than the moon. By establishing a human presence on Mars, our species will be afforded an insurance policy against a global cataclysm at home.
But that is not the prime reason to go to Mars. Rather, the exploration of the Red Planet will represent a scientific bonanza of unprecedented value. By general consent, Mars offers the best—quite possibly the only—hope of finding life beyond Earth. It harbors vital clues to the origin of life on our own planet; indeed, it is possible that life came to Earth from Mars. So the search for life on Mars is a search for ourselves: who we are and what our place is in the great cosmic scheme.
Many commentators are urging George Bush Jr. to finish in Iraq what President George Bush Sr. began in the Gulf War. Mr. President, I urge you to apply this advise in space. Take up the challenge. Go to Mars!
Physicist, writer and broadcaster, now based in South Australia
Author of The Mind of God; Are We Alone?; The Fifth Miracle; and The Last Three Minutes.