To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.
-- Dr. Stephen Hawking
So are we faced with a dilemma, who will take us to Mars? Will it be the big nasty money grubbing corporations or the big nasty corrupted bureaucratic government? If this is the question, my heart fills with joy because frankly I don't care, as long as we get there! But if the question is whether or not to explore, to completely abandon the prospects of humans in space, then I say, that could possibly be the most damaging thing to our society. We have a wanderlust. From the trees of northern Africa, we have propagated ourselves throughout this world, and recently to the outskirts, like no other. This need to explore is a healthy aspect of our nature.
When the Challenger exploded, my heart sank, not only for the life lost but also for the progress lost in exploration. Missions were canceled while NASA tried to figure out what went wrong. With the loss of the Columbia, and this new spark to the old debate, my feelings remain the same. What are we doing in space anyway; NASA is only an relic of the Cold War. I'll tell you what we're doing, we are advancing ourselves in ways that neither you nor I can comprehend.
Why take the risk of coming out of the trees? Why take the risk of crossing the Bering land bridge? Why take the risk of sailing to the New World? And why take the risk of flying across the Atlantic? Did these risk takers have any idea how much they were contributing to the future of the human race?
On the other hand, fear can cause us to take steps backwards. One of the most tragic events pertaining to human transportation was the crash of the Hindenburg. Airships make much more sense than conventional aviation in several regards. But when the Hindenburg exploded into a fireball, there were plenty of reporters around to take pictures for the newspapers and show how unsafe Zeppelins were.
After World War II, my grandfather was a test pilot for the US Navy. He was the first pilot to survive flying one particular model. If he would have ejected two seconds later than he did, I would have never been born. He did this voluntarily, with the knowledge that he was helping to make the future better and safer for the rest of us in some small way. The three pilots who died before him felt this same way or they would have never gotten into the cockpit.
We will make it to Mars and continue from there. That is not a question, the only question is when. My hopes are that this comes about within my lifetime. See, since I was a little boy I've wanted to go to Mars, not just to visit, but to live...to colonize. I have discussed it with my wife, if we have the opportunity we will go to Mars. I don't necessarily think unmanned missions have been a waste of time. Progress was made with each of these from Sputnik to Pathfinder. But were they as significant as the missions John Glenn or Neil Armstrong participated in? Machines will only take us so far. At some point, people will need to take the risk. I will tell you right now, more people will die before we reach the stars. I may even be one of them. But that is the price we pay for our future.