January 21, 2004

Mars or Bust?


"We're at our best when we're given our biggest challenges," he said. "When the challenges are mediocre, when they don't call on us to reach beyond ourselves, we have a tendency to perform in a mediocre fashion."

--Rick N. Tumlinson, a founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, commenting prior to President Bush's announcement regarding future space exploration. Source: New York Times, January 10, 2004.


I don't disagree with Mr. Tumlinson's assertion at all. We are at our best as a nation when we are asked to reach for the stars. I'm just afraid that being asked again to literally do so (in the form of a permanent base on the moon and manned exploration to Mars) is not the compelling vision we should focus resources on at this time.

Aren't the challenges that have surrounded us for years (and the ones where progress has been limited) enough of a call to action?

Shouldn't we find it compelling to ensure that every child has a safe living environment, food and shelter, and a quality education?

Is providing affordable and accessible healthcare for every citizen not worthy of our attention and complete commitment?

Might we not want to be known as a nation where every one who lives within our borders has the ability to read and write?

What about eradicating any of the debilitating diseases that cause tens of thousands of deaths each year?

I get the whole man on the moon thing and when Kennedy called first called us to action perhaps it evoked the same reaction I am having now: Is sending someone to Mars what we should be focusing billions of dollars on? Is this the "big vision" for our nation?

Like thousands of others, I've been captivated by the images being sent back from Mars and was touched by the childlike joy NASA scientists displayed when the Mars rover started roaming. But that does little to comfort those who have no home to go to in the bitter cold temperatures we are facing daily. If on their way to work at NASA the researchers have to sidestep the homeless and the impoverished, how delighted should they really be about pictures from a far off land?

I'm sure these space explorations produce scientific innovations of which I am completely unaware, perhaps ones only possible when done in space. If that is indeed the case,, NASA and the powers that be would be wise to start spreading the news about the tangible benefits of their research missions. The benefits of these efforts are not one of the truths we hold to be self-evident.

It's tough, isn’t it? How to invest in an unknown future when you're surrounded by unmet present needs? If we want to be purists, it would require doing away with all of the "frills" and frills are often in the eyes of the beholder. I like fireworks and they do inspire a bit of patriotic reflection. Personally though, I'd rather experience the fireworks of a child being turned on to learning as opposed to fleeting images trailing off in the sky. Those sparks have a greater shelf life and produce longer lasting benefits.

So perhaps it is less a question of either//or and one of AND, a fairly obvious observation I know. How can we take care of our pressing domestic challenges AND be a positive force in the international community?

How can we address the very rea,, very pressing current needs of our nation AND make calculated investments to prepare us for a future of which we do not fully know?

We need compelling visions that our stakeholders and stockholders would find rich in value. We need more leadership as defined by James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their seminal work, The Leadership Challenge: "Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations."

I'm unclear on what our shared aspirations are as a nation, just who it is that our leaders at various levels of government are trying to mobilize (if they are mobilizing anyone at all), and just what struggle we are being asked to commit to.

That's a problem. And what troubles me most is that we might actually lack a shared uplifting vision, that we as individuals perhaps are not being asked to engage in any struggle for, or commitments to, a greater good.

And what we are challenged by as a nation, we are challenged by in our respective organizations, be they major corporations, small businesses, or nonprofit associations. What is uniting your stakeholders and stockholders? What worthy struggle have they committed themselves to?

I'm tired of New Year’s Resolutions. I'm more interested in New Year's Revolutions.