Was it worth? It is worth while, all,
If the soul is not small.
Whoever means to sail beyond the Cape
Must double sorrow — no escape.
Peril and abyss has God to the sea given
And yet made it the mirror of heaven

— Pessoa, Portuguese Sea

Just going to put down this funny cigarette and write an article …

The 40th anniversary of the Moon landings has been the occasion for a lot of breast-beating about our failure to stay there, and go beyond it. After a dozen Americans had walked the grey surface, the program was wrapped up in 1972, as were the embryonic plans for a manned Mars mission. With NASA’s money gradually cut to about 20% of its high point in the 60s (when it took 4% of the US budget) attention turned instead to the Space Shuttle, the Jetstar of space exploration.

What killed space exploration was less the decline in valiant human et cetera, than the unfolding of the global recession in the 1970s, segueing into the sludgy stagflation of the 70s, which prompted the US to pull back from non-essential spending. Vietnam had also drained the coffers — in effect, the noble human project of exploring space had been sacrificed to killing as many yellow people as possible.

Technology and economics work in symbiosis, even though it looks like the gadgets lead the graphs. By 1969 Xerox PARC was ready to roll out the mouse-computer, the graphical interface, and the early developers of the ArpaNet (the forerunner of the Internet) had seen the processes as connected. For pioneers like Doug Engelbart, computing would develop as already networked. But economically the west effectively closed down for 20 years. Its partial and limited revival in the 1980s gave us a more limited version of that revolution — the un-networked PC (and then the Apple Mac) that didn’t do much more than allow us to make party invites using Chancery font, and spreadsheet our chequebooks. Leave something to the market, and all you get is marginal frou-frous. It took the might of a non-market institution like CERN to develop the web that made the internet (itself a non-market institution) usable for billions.

So it’s inevitable that a society dominated by the market could see essentially modest and pathetic aims — get back to the Moon, get to Mars in another quarter of a century — as somehow inspiring. Except they’re not. The Moon is just retracing our steps, which is why some of have suggested bypassing it for the red planet altogether. But though Mars is dozens of times further away than the Moon, let’s face it, it’s still local. And aiming for it emphasises the futility of much space travel. Nothing stretching before us but dead planets and gas giants. That’s why space travel isn’t like the great age of earth exploration, where there were always new societies and people to meet, and usually kill, around the corner. We know space is mostly dead, and contemplating it reminds us of the essential futility of human existence.

The only way to get the juices flowing is to aim not for something resembling life — the nearest exoplanet we know of in the “habitable zone” of a star, the orbit band that renders possible the existence of liquid water, and hence sustaining life — whether pre-existing or the life we bring it.

At the moment that’s Gliese 581c, a planet about 20 light years away. Part of a band of four around a red dwarf star, Gliese 581c has a circumference 150% the size of earth’s, orbits its star every 13 days, and has a likely surface temperature of between 0 c and 40 c, and is solid not gaseous. Better candidates may emerge as exoplanet searches continue, but this is the one for the moment.

Mars is extremely difficult. Gliese 581c is impossible, and therefore much more worth trying. What I’m proposing is a global 100-year commitment, a project that lasts beyond any one lifetime, aimed at developing the technology and beginning the journey. And not just a pissy few bucks off the end of national budgets neither. This is about a commitment to the first whole humanity project, with the 50 largest economies devoting say 12.5% of their annual budgets to it — trillions of dollars a year, funding in parallel the decades of research and development that required to get up a craft capable of a speed even a hundredth that of the speed of light — while also designing the ships capable of sustaining life for the 200 years it would take to get to Gliese at that speed.

The point is, of course, that for space travel, with (virtually) no friction, and no gravity, the ships can be as large as we can make them. The whole theme — arks that become self-sustaining communities whose descendants will live to see the end of the mission — is explored in hundreds of sci-fi books, so no point dilating on that.

But imagine the phenomenal sense of purpose and drive that would give to lives now. Millions would sign up to be engineers, environment designers. Space travel psychologists and sociologists — how much better would it be knowing that your forty or fifty year career was contributing to this immense human project, rather than designing a better way to download ringtones. New technologies for earth management, etc, would bud off at a massive rate.

As successively faster ships were built, waves of them would be launched. Maybe most wouldn’t make it, but the whole culture of the ships would be geared around that possibility — a stoicism around a collective human endeavour in the same way as stoic sacrifice once attached to nations.

Mars? We’d barely notice we’d got to Mars. The Moon? A commuter jump, since that’s where the mega-ships would be assembled.

Human culture would change. A lot that is unimportant would fall away.

Of course, once you’ve even decided on a project like that, you may as well use the first five years of it solving the problems of the earth — universal provision of fresh water, food, healthcare and shelter, reduction of carbon emissions, before moving onto the space thing. Compared to getting to the stars, all that’s a doddle — and deciding that we are going, would suddenly throw into relief how easily solvable existing problems really are, once you bust out of the market framework, and find the will to change the world again.

And if you think that’s mad … well, consider the alternative.

Now where’s that cigarette?