Interplanetary Commute

Editorial by Tom Dooley


As you may know, I now live in Tucson, Arizona. On my way home from work in the afternoon, I travel east on Valencia past the aviation museum and then north on Kolb past the graveyard fields of Davis Monthan Air Force Base. The mountains shimmer in the distance, ringing the wide valley that holds Tucson. As I make the thirty minute drive home, I’m treated to a strange, and strangely inspiring series of images. There are husks of giant, broken down cargo planes; fields of hundreds—even thousands—of now defunct fighters with their windows taped over (I can’t help but imagine the leader of some third-world revolutionary group, standing at the chain link fence and wishing he could have just one of these killing machines, which are now the modern military aviation equivalent of a 386 processor with 8 mb’s of RAM, but which would have enough firepower to take over many of the poorer nations of the earth); more planes in the museum lots: shiny, bulbous, improbable looking birds with people ringed around them wearing sunglasses and thoughtful poses as they examine the fat tires and the riveted underbellies. The spectators must’ve come from many miles away to peer at these old marvels, which strikes me as tragic, though I don’t know where the tragedy lies: Is it that I drive by these planes every day without a care in the world, or that people have come so far just to gaze at the hulking things?) For my part, I suppose I find it shocking we can fly at all. I’m still impressed with the concept of internal combustion. I’m amazed we can make boats out of steel that float, and still more amazed we can achieve a similar buoyancy in the air. Often on these drives home, I begin to feel like a stranger in my own century.

I learned about death, about what death really was, from the National Geographic when I was a child. There was a feature on some archeological findings in Peru. They found skulls with holes in them, and they said those holes had been created while the subjects were still alive—a primitive kind of brain surgery. Supposedly, the people with holes opened in their skulls might’ve gone on living for quite some time. But it wasn’t until I read this story, and saw the pictures of the tarnished skulls (which did indeed have large, carefully rounded holes on top), and felt the curve of my own head, that I understood one very important thing: those people, regardless of how long they survived, were now dead. They had been very much alive, just as I was now. I could picture their brains giving off steam in the cool mountain air. I didn’t know then what synapses were, but I could picture all kinds of activity going on beneath the steamy surface. My outlook on life has been forever instructed by that image of the Peruvian skulls: empty, tarnished, with carefully rounded holes. And it is partially because of the National Geographic article that I find so many things jarringly out of step with my own concept of life. No matter how much I learn and understand about science and technology, part of me is still stuck back in that most basic of paradigms.

Also on the way home is a mile long stretch where the road seems to sink down into a trench. With the desert all around, the craggy mountains, and with all signs of the city hidden from view by the walls of the trench, it’s not a big stretch to imagine you’re on the surface of Mars, traveling along in a man-made "canal." In fact, it happens to me every time. It’s not like I really think I’m on another planet, but the suggestion is powerful enough to get my imagination going for the rest of the drive home. I begin to feel like a stranger on my own planet. A burst of inspiration comes over me, and I think that if I were Bill Gates, or one of these other impossibly rich, resourceful, and revolutionary people, I would invest my billions in going to the moon and beyond. But I’m not just dreaming here. I really think it can and should be done. Think about it! Thirty years ago, we put a man into space. We went to the moon. The way things are changing now, the technology of five years ago is pathetic next to the technology of today. Imagine how far we’ve come from the days of the lunar missions! Why can’t people or corporations or countries with a few billion to spare just make up their minds and set up an outpost on Mars? A better question would be why don’t they? Because they could do it if they wanted to.

The operative question, however, is why should they?

Mankind has grown by exploring. By expanding. The frontier is where we do our evolving. It’s where we can start fresh, take chances, gain perspective. There was a time when America was the world’s frontier. Out of it came an experiment that has changed and will continue to change life on this planet for generations to come. To a large degree, those changes have been positive. But America isn’t the final step, not by a long shot. We still have a lot to learn. We need more fresh starts. There isn’t anywhere to go from here but "up." That’s what I think. A society in space will have to be rooted in exactly the same ideal that has always given Star Trek such an international cult following. That once you get into space, there truly are no such things as nationalities anymore. You have to look at the whole marble and call us all humans, or Earthlings, or whatever you prefer to that effect.

When we truly go into space (and when it happens I predict it will be an explosion just as the internet was an explosion, or television, or the automobile. Space travel and interplanetary living will become a technological reality and then a cultural manifestation), I certainly don’t think we’ll come up with a perfect society to go with it. But it’ll be a BIG improvement, and another step in our evolution as a species.

In the meantime, we’re counting down to the end of the millennium, and the freaks are coming out of the woodwork. It’s getting so you can’t turn around without running into someone who either claims the end is near, or who’s gleefully cashing in on the idea. Personally, I wish the people so insistent the apocalypse is upon us would just shut the hell up. If they’re right, and we only have another two years and eight months to hang out on this planet, I’d just as soon make the most of it. And if all these pessimists would put their energy into making the world a better place (like maybe start by helping to make sure every child grows up in a loving, disciplined environment), then I think we’d probably be safe for another thousand years.

More importantly, though, I think it’s important to remember that there is a personal apocalypse in store for each and every one of us. It happened to the folks in prehistoric Peru. It’ll happen to you and me and Bill Gates too. What are we going to do with the time we have left? Bill, if you’re listening, let’s go to Mars. And while we’re at it, let’s get that nuclear fusion thing working. I hear they’re shutting down the Princeton reactor for lack of funding. Call me paranoid, but when big money is involved, then I believe in conspiracies. If a bunch of bus, tire, and gas companies can get together in California and kill mass transit, don’t you think the people who would stand to lose trillions are making damned sure fusion doesn’t come about? But Bill, you’ve already got big money. Maybe not that big, but after a certain point, does it really matter? So let’s get busy and see if we can give this planet a reason to hang around past the millennium.


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