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Insight 2017: A year to get excited about making a trip to Mars, yes, Mars

Travel+Leisure’s 2014 travel checklist included Uruguay, Warsaw, Iceland, the Pangulasian islands in the Philippines, and Rio de Janeiro. In 2015, National Geographic had Corsica, Medellín in Colombia, Haida Gwaii off the coast of British Columbia, Taiwan, and the Faroe islands on their list. In their must-travel lineup for 2016, Travel+Leisure listed Panama, Guadalajara in Mexico, Lille, Hangzhou, and even Iran. The menu for 2017 is already up: Lonely Planet has Canada, Bordeaux, and Choquequirao in Peru as their top destinations.

Most of us will try and visit a few of the places that these travel bibles throw at us. Some lucky ones may even cover most listed places. A few among us — the brave, hedonistic ones — will decide to leave our normal lives behind and embark on that life-changing (or “life-defining” at the very least) trip sometime in 2017. Many others will dismiss these “lists” completely, and travel to places they’ve always wanted to; I know my own travel wishlist for next year includes places not on these lists: the root bridges of Meghalaya and the music festivals of Nagaland, travelling back to Kyoto and Osaka during the cherry blossom season and exploring more of Japan, snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef before there’s nothing left of it, Bhutan etc. The list goes on, as I’m sure it does for almost anyone who thinks about such things.

Mars on the mind. Reuters

Mars on the mind. Reuters

But there’s something else going on: in the midst of travel wishlists and bucket-lists compiled by every publication ranking exotic, faraway and sometimes unattainable places on their glossy covers, their somehow-even-glossier web pages, and their impeccably alluring and “wanderlusty” videos, there’s another place that’s gathering momentum. It’s someplace far away, further than any of us have ever been; we’re not even going to get there in 2017 (or for another decade), and most of us may have to wait our lifetimes to travel there, if at all. Wanna know what we’re thinking? Our prediction for the most interesting place in 2017 has less to do with earthly exoticism and everything to do with space exploration that has captured our collective imaginations, and will continue to do so for many years, nay decades, to come. Specifically, we’re talking about Mars (yes, that whole other planet). Sure, a trip there isn’t possible right away, but that’s just what makes it even more interesting!

We’re at an important juncture in human history: for the first time in half a century, space exploration has become part of common culture. In the late-1950s and through the 1960s, with the US and the erstwhile USSR vying to be the top guy with regard to spaceflight capability, space exploration was on everyone’s minds. Reading about the original “space race” makes its all-consuming nature and the impact it had on technology (ie, artificial communications and weather satellites, unmanned space probes, the creation of Nasa, continuing human space presence on the International Space Station etc.) abundantly clear. But, let’s face it, our generation was never going to be as enamoured by a man landing on the moon as Kevin Arnold’s was (unfortunately, our generation has probably spawned more conspiracy theorists debunking the moon landing; ugh... laser beams bouncing off the retroreflector arrays left on the moon by Apollo 11 are not a hoax, people!).


Our generation’s legacy is considerably different than what might have been envisioned for us. But over the past few years, a pattern has developed: the big 3 (US, China, Russia) have been launching over 20 spacecrafts for various lunar and other missions, each year. Elon Musk (through SpaceX) has stated his desire to visit Mars, colonise it, and make humans multi-planetary beings; even India has jumped on board with Mangalyaan’s launch into Mars’ orbit on its first attempt at a record low cost of approximately $74 million. All in all, it seems like the phrase “space race” can now be re-used to refer to our growing interest in space exploration (Mars, other planets, asteroids etc.), given the increasing coverage it has been receiving from popular media (and rightly so!), and the genuine excitement it has created in the hearts and minds of even the most partially-interested-in-it humans. And, sorry moon, but Mars has everything to do with it!

Let’s consider our Mars-in-popular-culture timeline: in 2014, we had the heady post-launch glory of Mangalyaan’s successful entry into Mars’ orbit (the pictures keep coming in, along with a few other scientific results). 2015 gave us The Martian — that wholly “believable” story about an astronaut who gets mistaken for dead and left behind on Mars (Matt Damon’s successful efforts in his struggle to survive on Mars are what Elon Musk’s dreams must be made of!). This came just a few days after Nasa’s discovery of water on the red planet. In December 2015, we cheered on as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket landed upright on solid ground in Cape Canaveral, after it had travelled deeper and higher into space (than anything before) and back. This was also the point when multi-billionaires duking it out on Twitter became a thing, courtesy Musk and Jeff Bezos (to be fair, although Bezos’ privately owned spaceflight company Blue Origin had also successfully landed its flight “New Shepard” back on earth, it didn’t go anywhere as far as Falcon 9 did). As Musk would say, suborbital ≠ space.

In 2016, our Mars aspirations went from theory-that-nerds-at-Nasa-are-working-on to something attainable during our lifetime — Elon Musk, speaking at the International Astronautical Federation’s annual gathering, laid bare his soul and his plans to colonize Mars and making humanity a multi-planetary species with SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System. Mars was now beginning to seem like a tangible truth, an inevitable next pit stop in humanity’s quest to explore and understand the final frontier — space.

Our cultural obsession with Mars has been ongoing for centuries, from the ancient Mesopotamians to the ancient Greeks (the warrior god Ares who became Mars), through the Middle Ages and Renaissance (when Mars became a metaphysical symbol, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy) to the last two centuries when, despite scientific proof to the contrary, life on Mars continued to fascinate sci-fi and fantasy writers (in novels such as HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles; sitcoms such as My Favourite Martian about a sarcastic secret visitor from Mars; and films such as Total Recall).

As of 2016, this cultural obsession has only kept increasing — whether it’s a celebrity like Leonardo DiCaprio signing up for the first experimental trip to Mars or National Geographic’s new six-episode docuseries MARS. The difference, as seen in The Martian and MARS, is that these, while still science fiction, are now based on real scientific knowledge about Mars’ environment, and technology that Nasa is developing for a planned mission to Mars. That’s not surprising, considering Dr Jim Green, who’s Nasa’s Director of Planetary Science (“if it’s not the Earth, it’s mine” - his words, not ours) was a consultant for The Martian.

A lot is said about President John F Kennedy’s historic speech, in 1961, before a joint session of Congress that literally set the United States on a course to the moon. Just over eight years later, man landed on the moon. Many believe that we’re much closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than we were to sending them to the moon back in 1961. If that’s true (Elon Musk surely seems to believe it; he even has a name for the first ship to go to Mars — “Heart of Gold”, as a tribute to Douglas Adams’ made-up ship powered by an “infinite improbability drive”, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — nice touch, that one!), we might have humans on Mars sometime in the 2020s.

Even if colonising takes longer, we might be lucky enough to see humans become a truly multi-planetary species. It’s a goosebump-worthy thought, an idea that’s long been in the making and in the minds of sci-fi-loving-humans, but only recently thought attainable. If the whole thing is a success, in terms of human (and animal) safety and bringing down the price point for a Mars journey, how would it change human behaviour? Would we start saving for a trip to Mars instead of that long-planned round the world (RTW) trip? How would everyman communication between the planets work? A few elections down the line, if a candidate worse than Donald Trump becomes President, would the liberal refrain be “I’m migrating to Mars” instead of “I’m migrating to Canada?” What impact would it have on science fiction? Which will be the next planet (or solar system) on our minds?

The questions are many. With some answers, sure. But more than anything else, Mars has allowed us to dream big again. Unlike Kennedy’s “moonshot” speech in 1961, Musk’s speech this year wasn’t just wishful. The timeline for space travel in 2017 looks insanely exciting: in January 2017, we’ll hopefully see SpaceX’s Falcon 9 return to work (at the core of the company’s business, Falcon 9 apparently has about 70 missions on its launch manifest, worth more than $10 billion in total). Sometime in early 2017, SpaceX looks ready to refly one of its already-flown boosters (and since the plan to colonise Mars and making human life multi-planetary relies so heavily on reusability, preparing a Falcon 9 first stage for a second flight is a pretty darn big deal!). By mid-2017, the Falcon Heavy (a near mythical rocket, it consists of three Falcon 9 cores, thereby making it the most potent booster on the planet) should launch. With the Falcon Heavy’s high capacity (54 metric tons) and super low pricing ($90 million), NASA will have some explaining to do about its $2 billion per flight Space Launch System (capacity 70 ton) as well its claims to put humans on Mars much later than SpaceX (in 2032). In November 2017, we’ll hopefully see the scheduled uncrewed demonstration missions from both SpaceX and Boeing, followed by a 14-day crewed test flight to space. If these go well, in mid-2018, we’ll see both companies operating their first commercial flights whisking people off into space and back!

And that’s the great thing about space exploration the way it’s poised in 2017:  it’s not only SpaceX — the race to Mars has several contenders (Nasa, Boeing, Blue Origin, among others). History will most likely be made soon, not just for space exploration and technology, but for humanity as a whole.

In 2017, we can only wait for the pioneers to do their job well. But while we wait, maybe we’ll watch those sci-fi sitcoms and movies, and maybe we’ll read those sci-fi novels. We’ll celebrate the various SpaceX and other landings with childlike glee, on Twitter and elsewhere. We’ll smile as a generation of youngsters will choose to be astrophysicists instead of developing another pointless app about “curated” gifts/homestays etc. Maybe we’ll look up from our Instagram screens and go get a telescope, spend our nights looking up at the night-sky instead of at celebrity posts. But most importantly, maybe we’ll become more curious and wondrous about the world, and about things we don’t know or understand. Maybe we’ll be, in Ray Bradbury’s words, “children again.”

“It is good to renew one’s wonder, said the philosopher. Space travel has again made children of us all” - Ray Bradbury

Updated Date: Jan 01, 2017 08:29 AM

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