Column: Looking at Mars as an economic stimulus

This undated photo provided by NASA and taken by an instrument aboard the agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks on the surface of Mars that scientists believe were caused by flowing streams of salty water. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona via AP)

This undated photo provided by NASA and taken by an instrument aboard the agency's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks on the surface of Mars that scientists believe were caused by flowing streams of salty water. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona via AP)

Recently, scientists were able to confirm that liquid water flowed on the surface of Mars. Such a discovery could prove to be monumental in the search for extraterrestrial life in our universe. While not direct evidence of such a fact, water is an essential component of life on Earth and could form the basis of life elsewhere as well.

Where NASA once believed that the dusty red planet was uninhabitable by humans, the discovery of water challenges such notions. NASA’s associate administrator for science, John M. Grunsfield, discussed launching spacecraft to certain areas of Mars to directly search for any signs of life, saying, “I can’t imagine that it won’t be a high priority with the scientific community.”

While these findings are exciting in their own right and the search for extraterrestrial life has been one of humanity’s burning pursuits, there also exists the possibility of current and tangible benefits in the form of economics.

Last month showed very poor job growth in the United States, with the Labor Department showing that the unemployment rate remained at 5.1 percent while wage gains fell, the overall labor force was reduced in size and fewer positions were established by employers, according to The New York Times. Diane Swonk, the chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago, warned that the current, dismal state of the economy is likely to persist for some time. That distant red planet could offer consolation to the abysmal conditions of the economy.

The journey to Mars could become humanity’s next space race, harkening back to the era of the same name during the Cold War. A few scraps of metal and a transmitter launched from a facility in current-day Kazakhstan represented Russia’s first foray into space in the form of Sputnik all those years ago.

This event demanded a response from the United States, who retaliated by planning their journey into that same dark void. Thus, NASA was born and science, technology, math and engineering education saw a significant rise in investment at the hands of President Eisenhower while President John F. Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon within the decade. America was enthralled in this effort, a unified machine working towards the same lofty goal. 

The space race spawned a whole generation of scientists, engineers and dreamers who took their eyes from the woes of our world and looked up at the stars. That era also saw the rise of a plethora of technologies in use today including satellite navigation, water purification systems, tremendous advances in aerospace engineering and medical imaging technologies. It truly was an age of wonder and prosperity, both at the time and for subsequent generations.

Since then, America has stagnated. Our global rankings for science, math and reading have faltered, with 29 nations and jurisdictions outranking us in these areas. The focus has shifted from the sky to the ground, from the discovery of new worlds to wars with old enemies. America seems to have lost its sense of wonder, instead being content with the way things are. As the numbers reported by the Labor Department show, however, America could stand to improve in many ways.

A full-fledged, united effort to explore Mars could prove to be an economic stimulus package on a galactic scale. The journey to Mars could represent the next space race, spawning a whole new generation of scientists and engineers. Such an effort would have the possibility to create a vast number of new jobs, from aerospace engineering to construction, psychologists to physicians –perhaps even xenobiologists.

The benefits of this journey to Mars would also trickle down to America’s education system, potentially boosting lagging numbers in math and science with increased federal funding. But perhaps most important of all, in a time of economic turmoil and rampant, senseless violence across the nation, it could make America look to the stars and dream again.


Vinay Maliakal is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at vinay.maliakal@uconn.edu.