I Should be Writing this on Mars


With the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union gave the first interstellar middle finger to their Cold War foe. This landmark launch, followed by the April 12, 1962 launch that made Yuri Gagarin the first human in space, demonstrated Soviet domination of space race over the United States. Not one to take such an ass-kicking sitting down, John F. Kennedy delivered his famous urge to the American public to get off their fat asses and into space, promising to put a man on the moon within the decade. The motivation was clear: plant an American flag on the moon and one up the reds with the first ever interplanetary "fuck you."


Wernher von Braun was a key player in development of U.S. rockets. He also developed rockets for some other people in Germany during the 1940s.


To reach the moon, America called into service the Saturn V rocket. Consisting of three stages, with the first stage featuring five F1 rockets, each with a blistering 1.5 million pounds of thrust, the Saturn V gave the U.S. the payload capacity necessary for a round trip to the moon. The Saturn V was so powerful, so well made, and so capable of withstanding the incredible strains put on it that it may well be one of the best machines ever built. Saturn V rockets successfully carried Apollo mission 8 and missions 10 through 17 (with the lone "whoopsie daisy" of Apollo 13) to the moon. The U.S. won the space race and further exploration of our solar system seemed just around the corner. To go to the moon and not go further would be like never playing past the first level of Mario.

The next logical step was obvious: Mars is the next checkpoint in human space exploration. By far the world most like our own, Mars is 1 1/2 times further from the sun than earth. It sports low temperatures of −225 F (-143 C) at the polar ice caps, with the frozen CO2 (dry ice) to prove it. However, those extreme colds are paired with surprisingly hospitable temperatures of 95 F (35 C) at the equator during the summer season. Reaching the red planet wouldn’t be as straightforward as traveling to the moon, a proverbial weekend vacation relative to the 9 month, one-way trip to Mars. Advancements in propulsion technologies would greatly reduce this travel time, but by using the Hohmann transfer orbit (a method of using orbital bodies to move a spacecraft from a low orbit into a high one, and vice versa), contemporary technology was all that was needed. Science and technology were improving rapidly, and despite the Cold War, it appeared that with international cooperation humanity could work to advance space flight further than ever before.


The Surface of Mars, where we could all visit if our country wasn’t filled with sissies.

After the early 1970s and the Apollo missions, NASA sought to develop a reusable space vehicle, and in the early 1980s the space shuttle was born. No longer purpose-driven like the Apollo days, the shuttle program languished without direction. With the country no longer galvanized by Cold War fears, NASA’s budget was slashed to a fraction of its 1960s heyday, and now sits at a paltry 53% of what it was in 1966.


The gutting of NASA’s yearly budget: at its high point (1966) the NASA budget of 32,106 million dollars (blue line) represented 4.41% of the Federal Budget (red line). Today it is only 0.48%.


The United States, the once-proud leader of science, technology, and exploration – the country that sent our best and brightest to the moon with golf clubs and moon cars! – has withered away to a nation of uncultured, technophobic losers. In China, 50% of college graduates are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) graduates. In Indonesia, that number swells to 66%, a full two-thirds of college graduates. In the U.S., it is a pathetic 25%.

Yet here I sit, on this boring dumb planet we call Earth, listening to the news talking about the fiscal cliff and Taylor Swift’s new doomed relationship. No hope of visiting the moon and no hope of walking on the red planet. In 1969, we sent two cowboys to the moon with a buggy computer less powerful than modern phones. Instead of the technologically advanced explorers that we seemed destined to become those many years ago, we are a country of xenophobic assholes.

I should be writing this on Mars.

As a chemistry PhD student I spend most of my time trying not to die from the poisonous gases and pyrophoric materials that are common in my lab. In between brushes with death I spend my time loving all things space related.