Even Mr Spock, the unflappable Vulcan in Star Trek, would have raised his eyebrows in surprise if he were to examine the reasons cited by some of the 1,800-odd Indians who have applied to participate in a space programme that will take them to the Red Planet. One applicant stated that his sole motive to escape Earth was to teach his wife and kid to be financially independent. Another aspirant stated that he would like to settle down in Mars permanently to test his mental stability. (His wish to relocate to Mars perhaps raised doubts about his sanity among his loved ones.)
Spock and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise had pledged to “go where no man has gone before” in order to quench their thirst for adventure and to get to know the unknown. Star Trek was essentially a cultural response to the Cold War. The idea of exploring space was glorified in the citizens’ imagination to support the massive diversion of public money to costly, and often wasteful, space programmes that were touted as patriotic projects designed to establish a superpower’s authority on earth.
The end of the Cold War led to space losing out not on its allure but its political capital. Nation states have since virtually withdrawn from the competition, and the vacuum is now being filled by imaginative entrepreneurs — Mars One, the brain behind this mission, is one such — that have degraded the idea of space travel by transforming it into an enterprise to fulfil mundane personal whims. The mission to Mars has very little to do with the love for science or adventure: it is inextricably linked to inordinate greed and the love of fame. One wonders how many Indian applicants would have been interested in this perilous, one-way journey had the organizers not taken the trouble to assure the contestants that every aspect of the mission — launching, landing and living on Mars — would be televised for a global audience.
There has also been a disturbing shift in the relationship between humans and outer space. The advancement of science and technology has meant that the thrust today is on colonizing, instead of merely exploring, what lies out there. The Mars One initiative emphasizes the establishment of a human settlement on the planet. It has assured the settlers of a supply of water, food and oxygen by “mining resources” from the planet’s soil and atmosphere. This raises a troubling question: be it a scientific enterprise or an entrepreneurial undertaking, can human exploration of space ever be divested of the innate need for ownership and acquisition?
The human flight to Mars, supposed to take place in 2020s after successful candidates undergo years of rigorous training, may take place on an Indian rocket. Unfortunately, many of ISRO’s contraptions, instead of travelling to outer space, have landed in the sea. Perhaps there is hope for the Martians yet.