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Onward to Mars!

August 25, 2012

I meant this to be a happy post a few weeks ago when Curiosity landed on Mars. Instead it’s going to be a melancholy post now that Neil Armstrong is no longer with us.

“Onward to Mars!” is a phrase I first heard at ThinkCon, a part of the Cambridge Science Festival organised by stand-up comedian, stand-up guy and skeptic Andy Holding. Helen Keen was telling us how NASA was founded by NAzis and SAtanists. But even before that in the history of space technology, in the 1920s, there were fans of rocketry in Russia, and in Germany, who formed clubs to discuss rocketry. This was before the Nazi V-weapons programme, well before the space programme. And their greeting to each other was “Onward to Mars!”

They didn’t talk about rockets as a weapon of war, they weren’t bothered with reaching our nearest neighbour… they were heading straight for another planet. The phrase has become a personal mantra (along with Holly) of positivity, and aspiration, and I was enormously chuffed that musical hero Akira the Don included the phrase in a song on his awesome Unkillable Thunderchrist album.

As a Liberal Democrat activist, I try to practice a sort of pragmatic radicalism – being aware of how you might reimplement a system from the roots upwards, then looking at what you can do in practice to move the status quo towards that radical vision. Introducing the mansion tax is a pragmatic step towards the radical concept of replacing tax on income with tax on wealth. Equal marriage is a pragmatic step towards the radical concept of interpersonal relationships being legal arrangements between two or more individuals, with optional religious and minimal state involvement.

It’s important that we’re realistic about what we can achieve at any given moment – that’s the reason I support the Lib Dems in Coalition, because I think we’ve been doing pretty well with the hands we’ve been dealt ever since May 2010. But it’s also important to keep our eyes to the heavens, to have a vision of where we want to end up.

Tears of joy ran down my face as I saw the first pictures coming back from Curiosity, just as they had during Spirit and Opportunity’s first days on the Red Planet. And they’re running down my face now at the thought that one day one of those images may be of a human footprint like Neil Armstrong’s. We must dare to dream of the future we want to see. And then we must fight to bring that about.

Onward to Mars!

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