[Re-published in honour of Mars Rover Opportunity – rest in peace little friend!]
We’re teaching our sons about Martians.
For the last few weeks a group of lonely billionaires have been all over the news talking about their plans to populate the Red Planet. They’re auditioning for brave and clever and able-bodied young men and women to help them build dynamic new low-tax civilisations on Mars and across the asteroid belt.
In return they’re promising adventure and excitement and the potential for heroic deaths.
Naturally, our sons are intrigued. For as long as they can remember they’ve been following the adventures of the unmanned Curiosity and Opportunity rovers as they roam the planet’s dusty surface. Those brave robots seem almost like family members.
“Can we go to Mars?” our sons ask us.
We’re not unsympathetic. When we were children our fathers read ‘The War of The Worlds’ to us as a bedtime story. We remember glorying in the destruction of Woking and London, which seemed like far less interesting places than the Martian invaders’ home planet. When we were our sons’ age we wanted to go to Mars too.
It’s the potential for heroic deaths bit that we’re not comfortable with.
“What about the radiation?” we ask. “Without the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field you’re going to be exposed to constant bombardment from cosmic rays.”
“We’re young,” our sons say, “what does radiation matter to us? We’re indestructible.”
“Space sickness,” we say. “Explosive decompression. Muscle atrophy and shrinking spines caused by low gravity. And that’s just the journey there. Do you know how many Mars missions have crashed on landing?”
“It’s the guy who invented battery powered sports cars,” our sons insist. “If he doesn’t know how to successfully land spaceships, who does?”
“What about aliens?” we ask. “Or deadly space bacteria? Or meteorites? Or Dust storms?”
Our sons look at us
“You can’t protect us from the everyday dangers of life in the solar system”, our sons say. “Sooner or later you’re going to have to let us go break our hearts on the sharp edges of the universe, whether you like it or not.”
So we tell them we’ll think about it.
It’s the fifth of August. We realise that somewhere on Mars the plucky little Curiosity Rover will be playing ‘Happy Birthday’ to itself, as it has been programmed to do on the same day every year since its touchdown in 2012.
We imagine our brave sons topping some Martian hill, watching as the pale and distant sun rises on their cold and beautiful new world, 40 million miles away from our arms.
We wonder what songs they’ll sing.