I speak to groups large and small on an almost weekly basis. Some of these are technical presentations; others address global policy issues; and still others are public events for a popular audience. If you were to see me speak on related topics in semi-contiguous weeks, you might assume that the presentations never change. It is true that I have a series of standard "stump speeches," but I also add new content to each of these, allowing them to evolve as I develop new ideas and understand what topics resonate with the audience.
For popular audiences, I occasionally open by jokingly opining that some members of the audience, for reasons both baffling and befuddling, may find my erudite and insightful presentation, though delivered with elegance, verve and panache, rather turgid and opaque. In that rare and extraordinary event, I humbly offer an alternate question for them to ponder while the dismal proceedings that are my prepared remarks meander interminably toward their much-anticipated conclusion.
That self-deprecating opening usually makes people smile, albeit weakly. What follows, though, is a very simple, though serious question. I simply ask, "What probability of successful return would you accept to be the first human to set foot on Mars?"
Walking on Mars
Superficially, this is the quintessential geek question, conjuring images of mighty rockets like the old Saturn V, complex orbital dynamics, spacesuits and EVAs, and ultimately, the an adventure on the red planet itself. On reflection, though, the question is more subtle, morphing into something deeper that makes the audience think carefully about themselves and the nature of the human condition.
Let us begin with the geek part, probability and statistics. There are many possible answers to the question, only one of which is categorically wrong. Anyone who says, "Why probability one, of course!" has failed to consider that nothing in life – other than death – is certain. Notwithstanding the popular claim, even taxes can be changed. One need only recall the old astronaut joke about sitting atop millions of pounds of fuel and thousands of parts, all produced by the lowest bidder. Hence, unless one's answer is, "I have no interest in going," any answer involves accepting some degree of risk.
The technically inclined among the audience inevitably then begin considering possible failure modes and probabilities, including mechanical, electronic, biological, chemical, environmental and social ones. In the mind's eye, one sees rockets exploding on the launch pad, solar storms creating lethal radiation during the long flight, failed entry in the thin Martian atmosphere, and a host of other deadly scenarios. The process reminds us that everything is fraught with some risk, and that we habitually and instinctively calculate risk-reward ratios every day. It is only the extraordinary risks that we consciously contemplate, and even then only rarely.
Risk and Remembrance
The question also illuminates two other salient issues. The first is one's personal risk-reward ratio. For a very few, perhaps the most reckless and thrill seeking among us, probability zero is an acceptable answer. For others, the adventuresome and the explorers, those with the putative "right stuff," almost any carefully quantified, non-zero probability is acceptable, for it offers the hope, even if improbable, of safe return. Many opt for an answer where the prospects of success exceed those for failure, for they value their lives.
The second aspect cuts to the centrality of our humanity, our insatiable curiosity and our hope to be remembered for having done something new, for having made a difference. To set foot Mars offers a chance to answer some deeply intriguing and vexing scientific questions about planetary formation and history and about the possibility of life on Mars, past or present. To be the first offers something else, the opportunity to be remembered, at least in the brief span of recorded human history, for having done something extraordinary.
What Is Your Answer?
It is an interesting and thought provoking question. It is a presentation unto itself. What probability of successful return would you accept?
As for me, as John Glenn once said, if there were a bird on the pad and they offered me a ride, I would be on it. I would have calculated the risks with the engineers, worked with the scientists and made an informed choice. Beyond that, the science, the technology, the curiosity, the opportunity – I feel their call.