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Human urge to pioneer, to fly to Mars

Humans are myopic creatures. Throughout our history — recent history, say 30,000 years — we’ve explored, traveled to distant lands and, to use an old phrase, conquered wild new territory. In his books, Desmond Morris has exposed the human exploration drive, noting that “unknown places over the hill” have often provided our species with the tools and experiences necessary to make us the leader of all animal species on the planet. Perhaps the leading cause for our genetic development has been, in effect, exploration.

The problem is, humans are also very complacent, and whenever a new frontier has been reached and colonized, there are always some who want to put down roots, dig in, stay put. As part of our development, that’s not such a bad idea.

When the Indians (wrongly named) first came to America — either from Ice Age France as recent evidence shows or later across the Pacific in multiple waves from Asia — these people encountered strange animals, foods and climate changes for which they were totally unprepared but soon adapted to. After adaptation (which can be called part of the exploration period) they settled in, in fact became settlers.

There is a huge difference between settlers and explorers. The one needs the other and vice versa. There would be no place to settle without the explorers. There would be no resources to enable exploration without the provisions supplied by settlers.

In recent times of plenty, however, we’ve tried to make settler mentality and explorer mentality meld into one. Somehow, in seeing the risk takers perish in pursuit of their genetically driven exploration, we settlers have become worried, obsessed with reducing that risk because, in a way, we feel guilty.

We are wrong. Explorers are risk takers. They live that way just as surely as we want to coddle ourselves with every safety device on our cars, every fuse in the electric box in our homes or the training wheels we put on our kids’ first bikes.

On the other hand, some explorers take silly risks and have found wasteful yet lucrative ways of exploiting their drive to push the limits. Evel Knievel was a prime example, as are the dopes you see on TV or YouTube trying death-defying stunts for no good reason whatsoever except to get attention.

The mission to the moon was a death-defying mission, every single flight. The men who undertook that journey (any journey into space) were explorers in the best sense of the word. They were driven to it. It was not a job, it was not a vocation, it was a need, a passion, a genetic imperative.

Ask them; to a man they can only explain it that way. Remember, to undertake one Apollo flight required study the equivalent of a doctorship program or maybe two. Yes, two. And that’s not to mention the physical training, family sacrifice, absence of any “normal” downtime. And the pay? Flight time was rewarded with a few extra hundred dollars on top of military pay.

Mars presents a unique challenge. Don’t be ignorant and ask why we need to go there. Desmond Morris’ books can explain your evolutionary need for exploration or you can simply remember those first explorers who reached these shores. Why come to this strange land? Duh (in hindsight). The explorers did not know why, they only knew they had to. And thank God they did.

We’ve mapped Mars, we’ve sent probes, we know what is there and what is not. The problem with going to Mars is that we, the settlers, are imposing our settled-in mentality on human exploration. We want it safe. We want to know they can come back (as we would want to). We want to make sure we can go and, if we get weak-kneed, come back.

Explorers have no such needs. The first pioneers of the Old West had no notion of being able to get back East. The Asians coming to America 15,000 years ago had no notion of testing the new land and seeing if they wanted to stay. They were committed, they had to make it work, they felt compelled to go and had to learn how to stay gone.

If NASA wants to go to Mars, and I think they should for all our sakes, they should change their mindset and allow new pioneers to go to Mars. Give them enough supplies to last awhile and let them have a try. They may not make it, but the next crew might or the next, just like the first explorers after the Lewis and Clark mapping expedition, pioneers can make it there somehow. Human explorers are resourceful.

The current plans for human missions to Mars use 65 percent of the weight, energy and dollars making sure people can get back from Mars, can lift off the red planet and make it all the way home.

Explorers don’t need to go home; they could not care less about the risk. They need to pioneer, to homestead, to conquer new lands. Use that payload to give them tools to survive while they figure it out. Once there, if they survive, a whole new world will be ours to benefit from, just like this New World was given to us.

Peter Riva, formerly of Amenia Union, lives in New Mexico.

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