With President Bush's Mars initiative freshly plopped on the table, we can prepare for the usual cannonade of reasons for and against. Against is easy. "With a deficit looming, we can't afford it." "It isn't necessary, a waste of money." "Another boondoggle for the military-industrial complex." "Why the moon first? We've been here, done that."
For is tougher. "There could be life there." "There could be the ingredients for life there." "We need a challenge that doesn't involve killing our fellow man." "The budget will be a tonic for the economy." "Moon first 'cause it makes heavy launches for Mars more practical." "The spin-offs from such enterprises are valuable." "Because."
I commend that last reason in the affirmative column. "Because." Disarmingly simple. But ineluctably complex. It embraces our primordial reason for doing everything. Because we conceived of it.
Any of the negatives carries some weight. Of course we can't afford it. We couldn't afford the 30-billion or so it cost to get to the moon. We can't afford to pay farmers for not tilling, dropouts for not trying, teenagers for not caring. Eighty-seven billion to fix what we broke in Iraq? On a strict cost-accounting basis we can't afford to do half the things we cheerfully pony up for; add the morality factor and the affordability gets more formidable. But back there in our communal cortex is the suspicion that we are intuited somehow to reach out; to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. The conscription call of Tennyson's "Ulysses" speaks to all of us.
The practical will give us a list of spinoffs from the space race as we used to call it ranging from pacemakers to Onstar. The greatest invention of the last half-century may have been velcro, but what the heck. The greatest possible discovery a human Mars exploration may yield is -- nothing at all. And this intuitive creature living in its bath of oxygen will make much of that nothing. If there is no life, no chance of its ever having been there, a part of us will extrapolate a caring God. See? We are alone. We are unique. And we owe it to ourselves and to a caring Creator to be mindful, grateful, caring, and humble.
Another more cynical part will say, "Let's press on. The chances of a world like ours, with all of life's ingredients, are very good out in, say, galaxy x. We haven't begun to scratch the surface of the search."
Ah, but if some squiggle of something is found in Martian rock, some remnant of a past sentient thing, then stand by. This is what many in the scientific and social community wish for: the chance to say, "See? It could have happened anywhere. It would have happened there on Mars had not the solar wind come up, or a flare of something put it out before it could get going. We aren't so special . Given the right conditions, we can crop up anywhere." And a host of instincts proscribed by centuries of self-regard and, yes, religion, are set loose.
There is something for everyone in the Moon-Mars missions. For the philosophers, another argument, pro or con. For industry allied with science, another Apollo-like beneficence. For the first person out of the Mars lander, a chance not to muff his lines. For most of us, a chance to see triumphant headlines once again, to reflect on the wonder of living in such a time.
And for at least one of us, the chance to trot out an old as yet unused headline:
"SCIENTISTS IN PASADENA DISCOVER LIFE IN GLENDALE"
Oh, brave new world.
Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.