I worked for a decade at NASA and I can tell you the 'Mars bros' have it all wrong

Laura Tenenbaum
·4 min read
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft attached takes off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida: Getty
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the manned Crew Dragon spacecraft attached takes off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida: Getty

NASA is scheduled to launch another rover to Mars on July 20.

Yawn.

During the decade I worked at NASA, my job involved touring the Space Shuttle trainer, exploring experimental extraterrestrial habitats, holding meteorites and donning a bunny suit for the clean room, where satellites were built. My friends nicknamed me The Astronaut.

“You’d be perfect,” they said, knowing I was athletic and daring in my role as senior science editor. “Just fill out the astronaut application.” I knew my oceanography background qualified me, but I couldn’t get past the idea of spending six months trapped in a smelly enclosure while eating freeze-dried lasagna, bathing with a washcloth and breathing recirculated air. Besides, I cared about Earth, not space.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, where I was based, those who worked on Mars science and those who worked on Earth science competed for attention and praise from management. During regular meetings, Mars People sat in the choice seats nearest the director, who saw Mars as exciting and prestigious and treated the Earth People like stepchildren. A Mars rover cost $2.5 billion, whereas an Earth orbiting satellite was around $400 million. Mars People snubbed Earth People.

I remember when the Deputy Director of Communication lectured me on space exploration as the only way for humanity to move forward. I glanced around his office at the stacks of paper piled across his desk, while he executed his duty to school me on all things NASA. He explained with great confidence how the success of humankind was the result of an innate drive to go and explore, and how the pioneering spirit was integral to human nature. His opinions echoed those of Neil deGrasse Tyson, with whom I’d once argued. Tyson and I spent an hour going at it so intensely that I ended up apologizing for accidentally spitting on him. “Go ahead and lean in,” he told me. “I’m a New Yorker; I can handle it.”

Both Tyson and the NASA director claimed that sending humans to Mars was the best way to excite people about science. They painted a romanticized ideal, with charismatic explorers sailing forth toward wonder and travel and discovery. But to me, exploration represented machismo and pillaging and conquest. In school, we were taught to regard imperialistic conquerors as heroes, even though each journey to discovery was mired in colonial exploitation driven by expansionism. Excerpts from diaries and letters written by Christopher Columbus included descriptions of genocide, slavery and rape. The British explorer, James Cook, committed massacres and kidnapped Native people. Such atrocities were not humanity.

These space enthusiasts also claimed that during NASA’s Apollo Program (1963-1972), the American public was more scientifically literate, which was a talking point supporting space flight to Mars. But there was no empirical evidence for the assertion that human or robotic space-travel increased public interest in science. Science literacy among US adults hasn’t changed for decades. So why would dredging it up again move society now? If space travel were so inspirational, then more people would be able to name astronauts other than Buzz Aldrin or Neil Armstrong. They can’t.

True, many Americans have an abysmal understanding of how the world works. According to the Pew Research Center, 33 percent of Americans reject the concept of evolution and believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. This lack of awareness about how science impacts politics, policy and our future is a problem with economic and civic consequences. We live on this planet together, so our collective actions impact each other as well as other species. Every apathetic citizen or hostile denier represents a gamble on everyone else’s future.

The coronavirus started as an ecological pandemic. It spread quickly because of globalization and public misunderstanding of, and distrust in, science. Instead of trips to Mars, we could focus attention on Earth and clean up the mess here before exploring new horizons.

During the 13 years I taught college-level oceanography, my students told me they believed science was cold and difficult to understand. But these young people were keen to learn about Earth’s climate and get involved. I convinced them that literacy involved connections they made to the world, not facts to memorize.

After Trump took office, I was called into JPL Ethics and told that climate change was a “sensitive topic,” and that my work was being monitored. By September 2017, I’d been censored, intimidated by Media Relations, stripped of my duties and barred from speaking to the press. My manager suggested I write something about Mars.

I knew NASA administrators cared about Mars. Neil deGrasse Tyson cared about Mars. But I didn’t, and neither did many of my friends and neighbors. My responsibility to be honest about climate change outweighed my responsibility to protect NASA. I refused to stay quiet. By October, I was forced out.

Was it worth it? Yes. Our generation’s ambitious project, our “moonshot”, isn’t space travel. It’s the climate crisis, plastic pollution and public health.

Our scientific talents should be focused here. On Earth.

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