Dying on Mars

Martian Sunset

Credit: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

I don’t read much about the Mars One project because I’m too jealous of those who might actually go. I know, I know: the whole idea is a crackpot one and there is a very real chance that the project will never actually get of the proverbial ground. But if I’d been younger, fitter, and with skills more suited to the mission…I would have auditioned. Because to be part of that particular journey…just the thought of it takes my breath away. I’ve written previously about some of my thoughts on space and its meaning to me and I don’t really know what more to say about it. But the recent news about Mars One contestants as well as my watching a number of VSauce videos on YouTube about space and the upcoming release of Public Service Broadcasting’s album The Race to Space (which I highly recommend listening to), have me thinking about space a lot tonight.

And death. And how we think about our own deaths, and what we imagine might be a “good” death. For some, a good death would see them surrounded by family, for others it might be in the pursuit of extreme thrills or adventure. Others might simply desire a soft and kind exit, dying quietly in their sleep. If given the chance (which, realistically, I won’t be), my good death would be to die on another planet: to be part of humanity’s reach for the stars. Many might see those vying for the possibility of a one-way trip to Mars as odd and be puzzled by the apparent willingness to forgo family and friends for an arduous and uncertain journey that would certainly end in death—and probably sooner rather than later. But to stand on another world and to be part of that particular legacy? I would most certainly take that opportunity. Finding purpose is a tricky business and maybe I’m being naive to think that a journey to Mars would finally achieve a sense of purpose for me after so many years of struggling to find my own meaning to myself. Still, I can’t help but think that such a journey would indeed give me a profound sense of purpose and accomplishment.

However, I also know that a sense of purpose and meaning are not invested upon us by outside forces but are something we create for ourselves. In the grand scheme of things, being part of a mission to Mars is no more important than teaching someone to read or caring for a sick relative or writing a poem or creating a YouTube video or painting a “masterpiece” or helping a stranger or being kind or singing a song to an audience of one or loving someone or agitating for human rights or protesting war or thinking deeply about something you love or knitting or sharing food or dancing. In the face of deep time and deep space, all our achievements, all our legacies, all our accomplishments will be forgotten because the universe is really fucking huge and we are really fucking tiny…no, scratch that, microscopic…actually not even that, we are infinitesimally, inconsequentially, unbelievably smaller than the smallest thing you can even begin to imagine when placed against the size of the universe. Hell, space makes even the speed of light seem puny.

(For an example of this—and to get the barest fraction of a visceral sense of the size of things—I highly recommend checking out this video that simulates the journey of a photon leaving the sun and traveling through our solar system. Yes it will take 45 minutes and yes, it will require some level of patience that most of us don’t have these days with our need for constant stimuli, but I promise you that your time will be well spent. Especially so if you can watch it on the largest screen you possibly can.)

Our purpose and legacy, no matter how large they seem are ridiculously small when measured against the future, but that does not diminish their importance to us as we live and breathe and scrape and claw at existence for the short, short time we have. Purpose and legacy might be meaningless words to the universe, but they fill our hearts and minds with excitement and desire. Thus, while I know that in the long run all is forgotten in the heat death of the universe, I can’t help but struggle with my own sense of purpose and the legacy of what I will leave behind.

I will, hopefully, one day find my sense of purpose and make peace with my life and my accomplishments. Yet there will always a part of me that wishes I could stand on another planet.

Even if I was to die there.