Yesterday, the BBC morning news offered a commendably straightforward piece on the potential for success of a Martian expedition.
In contrast to their customary patronising style when considering things extraterrestrial, the reporter and presenters demonstrated deference to facts and focus in their debate.
An invited 'Expert on Space Technology' was asked about the potential for exploration in our lifetime. 'Return' versus 'non-return' options came up. "Yes, we could do the trip, if it were one way for the astronauts involved.. There would indeed be volunteers". Our man at the BBC went on to suggest that there would therefore be ethical issues that may arise. That allowing someone to opt out of our gravity and security, to end their lives in depleted circumstances on a dusty planet may cause moral problems. Good for him.
The simple questions offered simple answers by the expert, time took over and we were returned to the mundane. However, the resonance of that item rang and rang as the true position of the volunteer came clear.
It remains a feasible, if fiscally driven option, to land a voluntary staff on Mars. These almost incomprehensibly driven people will have been vetted and secured by all and any means. The success of their mission will depend entirely on the balance of their selflessness and if this success is to be measured as of value then the self will prove a very special self indeed.
But of us. What are we, who neither opt to go or opt our fellows in? What are we to make of this arrangement after all? Is there an analogue that already points us to the way of using this?
Our scientist parents. Those who not only do the hard sums but are prepared to appear on television and help explain the facts. They are trusted by a process that protects us all from fear. We like the sums to be so hard as to appear impossible. We enjoy the principle that makes us thankful for our phones and satnavs and consigns their workings to the margins of magic. We laughingly shrug off the intellect necessary for the understanding of these wonders whilst trusting our betters with the complex truth. And all the while, the fear of separation is ignored.
The divide is vast. In order that the distance is diminished we talk of 'mission' and of 'trip'. The journey that these astronauts will take will carve a memorable slice of life in merely getting there. It will take months. Months which will begin with regular reports and nightly updates and we'll follow all the maths as best we can. Until the journey and it's meaning become commonplace and the crew forgotten in their efforts until landing safely on the Martian dust.
All the while, lip service will be paid to the emotional components of the exploration. We will be informed and entertained by reassurances of cognitive diversions for the crew. Their psychological safety, first assessed at interview, will form the core themes of news and bring sobriety to light entertainment. We will worry, and assume that this great scientific work has covert agendas. That we will all somehow benefit from a stronger psyche as a result of the volunteers self sacrifice.
Then there will come the ultimate global understanding that, they're not coming back. That there is now a separation that exists between us here on Earth and our former siblings there on Mars. How do we manage this now?
There are existing analogues, but not complete or satisfactory ones. We have cast others off before. In history, we've often thought of banishment as more severe a penalty than death. In ecstasy we single out the most devout and give them money, fame and singularity. As payment for their sacrifice we offer lonely people power. Our human story is pinned by popes and kings and presidents whose failings are a benefit to us. Their isolation celebrated While we share our joint discomforts.
This exploration will be different. The first hints of deference to the bravery and sacrifice are here. On television and in the scientific press, we talk about the special qualities required whilst all the while, we may be unprepared for what the journey means.
On the day our pilots land on Mars, our small chaotic systems will snag and stumble. A gradual culture of understanding will cause us all to pause before the next speech or statement or action is expressed. We will become suddenly bereft. Because, for the very first time, we will have separated part of us, a small and almost negligible fraction of our family, to stand apart and be uninfluenced by anything we do. Except our information. Whilst we continue massacres and missions in the name of myths, our siblings will be quietly dependent on the stories that we send.
How comfortable will we be with that? For one, I know I'll always think of our marriage made with Mars as binding and binary. If one of us thinks constantly about his representatives elsewhere then I'm guessing so will we all to a degree.
This is not an opportunity for betterment, it is the end of what we think we are.