Friday, September 4, 2009

Would You Colonize Mars If You Couldn't Come Back to Earth?

This story in The New York Times earlier this week made me think of space travel, Mars, and a great writing prompt I used to give to first year students.

Years ago, I heard the statistic that 60% of people in a poll said that they would go colonize Mars, even if going to Mars meant that they could never come back to Earth. The news story that gave me that statistic said that getting to Mars is no problem and even colonizing Mars, while challenging, is feasible--but taking enough fuel to get home to Earth makes the project impossible. My first thought: why would anyone want to colonize Mars if it meant leaving Earth forever?

Well, plenty of people apparently. When I told my students about the news story and asked them if they'd go, about 30% of my students said that they'd leave tomorrow if they could. I'm sure that some of them would leave because they're on the run from bad families and grim pasts--but I think most of them would go for the adventure of it all.

When I was younger, I read about colonists, and I assumed, usually rightly, that the Old World must have been pretty bad for people to risk that voyage. And in case you're tempted to romanticize what life would have been like for those colonists once they got to the New World, read Toni Morrison's A Mercy. No book I've ever read shows the precariousness of that life as well as she does (go on, read the book--it's short).

For those of you starting a new academic year and needing writing prompts for your students, the question in my blog post title makes a great prompt. I've gotten great essays from people who would leave and from people who would refuse. It's a novel way to help people ponder what they value. And for those of you who like to give students something to read so that they have something to respond to, I'd think that article in The New York Times would make a great one.

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