President Obama announced that the United States will send people to Mars by the mid-2030s. About time, too. Who knew it would take so long to get to Mars when we sent a bunch of guys to the Moon 40 years ago? Many of us figured we’d be vacationing on the Moon by now, with the more adventurous among us camping out on Venus with the whole family in their Winnebago spaceship. Turns out that wasn’t the case.

The space program sort of petered out in the 1970s, with the emphasis switched to the Space Shuttles, basically flying trucks that hauled Cable TV satellites, space station components and other cargo into orbit. Not that the space stations are any great shakes; small utilitarian affairs for conducting science experiments. The most exciting thing we’ve put into orbit has been the Hubbel Space Telescope, which constantly provides us with amazing photographs of the beauty and wonder of the universe that we were missing out on by suspending our exploration of space.

Well, we’re on it again, with the good old US of A taking bold steps to lead the way to the stars. While all this heavy rocketry is expensive and complicated and many people claim we can never find suitable planets to inhabit, we are reminded that Christopher Columbus had to listen to the wet blankets of his day when he planned to sail past the point where popular wisdom said his ships would fall off the end of the earth into… well, no one knew exactly into where he would fall, into Hell maybe, bur the consensus was that he was doomed.

Columbus was the sort of person who figured mankind was doomed only when we stopped asking what was on the other side. He figured it might as well be him that finds out what’s over there, so he convinced the Queen of Spain to bankroll his adventure. Her gamble on this “madman” paid off pretty well for Spain, what with them being as brutal and greedy a set of conquerors as ever lived. Before you could say Manifest Destiny the New World was lousy with Europeans planting flags in someone else’s backyard and claiming it in the name of their king.

By and by we filled up all the available real estate here on Earth, with 192 different flags planted in our various countries these days. Along the way we learned to fly, so we set our sights on the sky, and into space. We orbited the Earth, then sent guys to the Moon, and in the process benefitted all of humanity with the gadgets we had to invent for the space program. While some of us feel that Velcro and Tang were pretty nifty inventions, it was the miniaturization required for space flight that really made our day.

Things like silicon chips, fiber optics and automatic navigation led to personal computers, cell phones and the Internet, to mention only the big ticket items. There’s thousands more that were the direct result of space exploration. It was like the Spanish conquest of the New World, getting showered with gold, only without all that messy slaughter and culture annihilation. Now that we’ve had thirty-something years to catch our breath and apply this technology on Earth, we’re ready to explore again.

Who knows what we’ll invent this time, or what we’ll find on other planets or asteroids that will benefit all of us? Mars isn’t around the corner like our Moon. It’s 35 to 36 million miles away, depending on the time of year, not exactly a day trip. The astronauts who fly to Mars will spend months aboard their spacecraft. The first trip there may not even see them landing on the planet itself, merely orbiting, taking photographs and scouting locations for future landings and settlements.

But land we will, eventually. We now know there’s water on Mars. There are scientists who claim we can create an oxygen-rich atmosphere there by planting moss and other simple plants, then upgrading to more complex plants and over the course of a hundred years or so, voila, a breathable atmosphere. Until then it will be sealed suits and climate-controled buildings for the hardy souls who choose to live and work on Mars.

There will be other adjustments for humans to make. While the Martian day is almost identical to ours at 24 hours and 37 minutes, their year is twice as long, so the 4 seasons that Mars also has in common with Earth will each be longer, although not uniform in length. Mars is roughly half the size of Earth with a smaller mass, so the pull of gravity is only 38% of what we are used to. The long-term effect of light gravity on human health is yet another unknown that will have to be dealt with. None of these hardships and challenges will deter adventurous people from lining up around the block for a chance to go to Mars.

Visible to the naked eye, the Red Planet has called to humans for eons, even more so than our “sister planet” Venus. A thousand stories have been concocted about Mars, and scientists have been drooling over the place for as long as there have been scientists. Now that we finally have the ability go there, we might as well. Mars, like the Moon before it, is merely another baby step when it comes to exploring the greater galaxy beyond our Solar System and the bazillion stars out there and, as we are finding out, a ton of planets. There’s got to be at least a few that will support human life. About time we got started.

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