Hot on the heels of the release of the action movie The Martian—and the discovery that the red planet still has liquid water—NASA has unveiled a bold three-stage plan for getting humans to Mars within the next couple of decades.
The timing may seem odd. In The Martian, an astronaut is stranded on Mars and has to be rescued. The risks are huge; the expense is astronomical; and just about everything that can go wrong does. The movie, made in collaboration with NASA, hardly seems like an advert for more manned space exploration.
Yet it is, and in a cleverly subversive way. In the Cold War years, as John F. Kennedy said, Americans flew space missions “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” After the Soviet threat vanished, NASA’s mantra became “faster, better, cheaper.” There was a new timidity, enforced by a penny-pinching Congress.
That penny-pinching is now worse than ever. And it makes a certain sense. Unless you believe, like Elon Musk, that we need to colonize Mars in case Earth is wiped out, there’s no reason to send people there.
But the benefit of human spaceflight has never been the destination. It’s always been the journey—partly for the technological spin-offs, and partly for the greater glory.
NASA is already a master of social media. Now, by pairing its ambitions for Mars with a story of disaster, it’s tapping into a much more primal source of support than any cost-benefit analysis: belief in the human spirit. It’s a risky bet to make against politicians and bean-counters, but it suggests the agency has remembered the only good reason for going to space: because it is hard.—Gideon Lichfield
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
The political power of Eric Schmidt. The executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is funding startups that provide data-crunching services to Democratic political campaigns, including Hillary Clinton’s. Tim Fernholz and Adam Pasick report exclusively on one stealthy tech startup that demonstrates Schmidt’s growing influence and the technological challenges of a modern run at the US presidency. Plus, Elizabeth Winkler on the unfairness behind Clinton’s desperate desire to be liked.
China’s big-brother credit scoring. A new ”Sesame credit score” gives up to 350 million Chinese internet users a rating based on their online spending habits, but also on how much data about themselves they enter and how many of their friends use it. It could be a model for ”social credit” systems in other parts of the world—and an entry-way for greater government surveillance, Zheping Huang explains.
Is Maine’s lobster boom about to become a bust? They’re delicious and numerous, but nobody is quite sure why the Maine lobster population has exploded in the last two decades, writes Gwynn Guilford. Which means some recent lobster demographic data are either nothing to worry about—or signal an imminent population collapse.
The astronaut’s guide to disaster planning. Alice Truong interviews Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, YouTube star, and space guitarist, who offers tips on everything from changing careers (he’s also been a test pilot, farmer, and downhill ski racer) to how to plan sensibly for doing very dangerous things.
Big data breaches are usually even worse than they seem. When a company says it’s had tens of millions of customer credit-card records stolen, you should probably add a few tens of millions more, says Keith Collins, after totting up the initial and final estimates of some of the largest security lapses of recent years.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
How to turn a good story into $10 billion. Buzzfeed’s Nitasha Tiku obtained confidential fundraising documents about office-sharing start-up WeWork. Based on what she found, she argues that so-called “decacorns” (worth at least $10 billion) are pulling in huge investments for business plans that deny even the most basic financial common sense.
Where Lima got its food boom. The Peruvian capital is a city of few attractions, yet in recent years it’s become known as one of the most exciting food scenes in Latin America. For the Smithsonian, Lima native Marco Avilés explains the political and social origins of the culinary explosion, and lists a few of his favorite cevicherías and other feeding spots.
When even debt has color. Black Americans are far more likely to get sued for unpaid debt and have their wages garnished, even when you control for income. A year-long investigation by ProPublica shows how racial disparities in things like wealth and access to credit can beget further racial disparities down the line.
How the victim of a Nigerian romance scam turned unwitting accomplice. Wired’s Brendan I. Koerner sheds light on the intersection of global fraud and internet dating in this tale of a random Facebook connection gone bad. It’s a story as much about love and crime as it is about what it means to be poor and alone in the American South.
How the world failed the Middle East. Shadi Hamid in the Atlantic debunks the perception of the Arab Spring as a purely indigenous uprising of anger. Before, during, and after, foreign powers—the US especially—played an outsized role. Especially pertinent this week, in the light of Russia’s move to support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the US dropping its support for the Syrian rebels.
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