Let’s stop pretending going to Mars is for mankind

I read the news of the proposed one-way
trip to Mars for up to 40 lucky Earthlings
with curious fascination. First, I browsed
through the 100 candidates who had made
the shortlist. Of course there was a
Nigerian, a certain Ighodalo whose upbeat
personableness came across well in his
application video. No matter how bizarre
the enterprise, I am always glad to see
Nigeria represented. Next, I discovered
that to fund the mission, both the journey
out and the first years on the red planet
will be turned into a reality show: perhaps
Big Brother Mars, The Only Way is
Martian, The Real Housewives of the
Athabasca Valles. I could go on for a whole
episode of Star Trek.
What struck me as I surfed through the
profiles of shortlisted candidates and
watched applicants’ interviews, was that
the mission is surrounded by a certain
rhetoric of progress. Going to Mars will
move humanity forward and open up new
frontiers; it will be a veritable leap for
mankind. I watched a woman look forward
to the day her statue will be planted on
Mars’s red soil in honour of her services to
mankind. I watched a father willing to
leave his wife and children behind for a
chance to make this jump for humanity. I
watched a young man speak of his
application as a “sacrifice” for the rest of
us. Through the glories of modern science,
mankind is once again forging ahead.
Then I thought of my village in south-
eastern Nigeria. The roads are not paved,
the electricity supply is erratic and infant
mortality is high. Are my townspeople
included in this great leap for mankind?
Have their lives changed since the last
alleged leap, Armstrong’s slow walk across
the moon? They use candles in a world
where there are light bulbs. Their children
die of infection in a world where there is
penicillin. Yes, sometimes, technology
trickles down. You would be hard pressed
to find someone in my village without a
phone, but charging it, that’s another
issue.
By and large, modern science has never
been in their interest or the interest of the
2.6 billion people without access to
running water or the millions, who despite
breakthroughs in agriculture and farming,
are still starving in 2015. Much of scientific
discovery is for the betterment,
amusement and the curiosity of a lucky few
in this world who are either born in the
parts we call the first world, are middle
class or affluent enough to afford it.
At least the project is not funded by a
government wishing to make a name for
itself . In 1999, the former president of
Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, inaugurated
the National Space Research and
Development Agency. There was public
outcry and understandably so. Nigeria’s
per capita income that year was under
$300. Four years later, Nigeria launched its
first satellite at a cost of $13m. By 2008,
NigeriaSat-1 was lost in orbit due to
shoddy work by the foreign engineers
hired to handle the project. We are not
living in the cold war period. Prestige is no
longer measured by how many of your
citizens you can fling into space. National
prestige is based on the wellbeing of your
citizens, their access to healthcare,
education, a balanced diet, running water,
electricity and affordable housing. These
are the banalities of national prestige.
So I wish those who dream of going to Mars
a safe journey. I wish their show healthy
ratings, especially as we Earthlings can be
quite faddish when it comes to reality TV. I
hope their colony thrives and they play
nice and things don’t get Lord of the Flies
up there. I hope the Nigerian makes it and
I hope he tells his parents before he goes
or else they’ll fly to Mars and drag him
back by the ears. In short, I wish them
well, but theirs is a journey that only
serves to highlight just how unequal our
planet still is. Humanity does not progress
by jumping into space and leaving the
cares of Earth behind. We move forward by
creating a more equitable and
compassionate planet for now and
generations unborn