Why we need to colonize Mars as soon as possible

Exploring other worlds and moving humans onto the Moon and Mars may seem foolish in light of the significant challenges we face as a species. On the surface, it might seem superfluous to bring humans to the Moon and start living on Mars, while hunger, disease, and poverty affect billions of people worldwide.

This feeds a dangerous trend, however — an anti-scientific backlash against space exploration. Some memes traveling the interwebs call for ending the exploration of other worlds, in order to “fix Earth,” or “plant trees.”

These are noble goals, vital to the survival of life (human and otherwise — let’s not forget cats). However, these significant, even existential, challenges (global warming, I’m looking in your direction) must be met with the best, most powerful tool humankind has ever devised to overcome obstacles — science.

But, I’m not dressed for the 19th century!

Journey with me as we imagine a theoretical past. It is the spring of 1850, and 30-year-old Queen Victoria has just awoken from her nap. She gathers all of the greatest minds in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland together with joyous news.

“We have just had a most fabulous dream,” she states. “We dreamt of a box, with glass on the front. Pictures — moving pictures — appeared on the glass, while sound came from it. It was called television.”

Then, she sets a lofty goal for her intellectual elite.

“We command you to work together with scientists from around the globe, and make us a television. We will cover all costs, and anything you want shall be yours, once we see this television work.”

The question posed is — even given unlimited funding, and powerful incentives — would it have been possible to build a television in 1850?

The physics of a television set (and transmitters!) requires a significant understanding of electromagnetism, the flow of electricity through molecules, and the propagation of radio waves through the air.

In the middle of the 19th Century, legendary physicist James Clerk Maxwell was just starting to publish the first in a series of revolutionary findings of electromagnetism.

Still, these took over 40 years to complete, and they were not experimentally proven until the 1890s. The first transmitters were not constructed until experiments conducted by Heinrich Hertz in the 1880s.

All this theoretical work needed to be in place before any significant work could proceed on technology. Without the pure science of Maxwell and Hertz, Marconi would have been unable to work on the transmission of radio waves from a transmitter to a receiver — the first practical step toward building a television.

Investments in pure science plant a fertile field for technological and social developments we can never foresee. And, without pure science, no matter what she spent, Queen Victoria never would have seen television before passing away in 1901, 26 years before the first television transmission took place in San Francisco.

Seeding the future

The U.S. Federal budget for NASA amounts to $23.3 billion, less than one-half of one percent of the federal budget. By comparison, NASA received nearly 4.5 percent of U.S. government spending at the height of the triumphs of Apollo.

Today, planetary exploration takes up less than one-third of NASA’s budget.