Last month, scientists announced that Mars has huge subsurface deposits of ice. If you don't care about going to Mars, you might say, "Ice. Huh. OK," and move on. But if you are a member of the semi-secret army of Mars enthusiasts who dream of the day when mankind colonizes the Red Planet, this was monumentally good news.
Water is the key ingredient for colonization. Plentiful drinkable water is the least of it. H20, as the name suggests, can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used for breathable air and rocket fuel. Being able to exploit this fact means spaceships can be lighter, cheaper, more efficient and refuelable.
Now, I am all in favor of going to Mars. I think it is a cosmic embarrassment that we've given up on serious space exploration. It took us hundreds of millennia to learn how to fly, and only 66 years to get from the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk, N.C., to the moon. But since then we've only putzed around in low orbit. This is like sending Columbus to America and then spending the next generation surfing the European coastline.
But the arguments for exploration have been made over and over again. For some reason, going to Mars doesn't spark popular or media interest. So let me make a different case for Mars: It'd be good for women.
Most of us can agree that men dominate human history. Men fought the wars, big and small. Men discovered most of the cool stuff, invented the vast majority of the most excellent doohickeys and, with few exceptions, wrote the best books, poems and bathroom limericks. Men dominated the fields of exploration, statecraft, art and science.
This is less controversial than some feminists would like you to believe. The real arguments derive from the question of why this is so. Is it because the fairer sex is too fair to come up with clever ways of blowing up people? Or, it is because my knuckle-dragging ancestors wouldn't let the perfectly capable girls into their He-Man Woman Haters Clubs (to borrow a phrase from "The Little Rascals")?
There's plenty of time for that fight later. My point for now is that unless you're going to redefine the history of humanity into a tale of berry-picking, child-rearing and generally unsung back-breaking labor, you're going to find comparatively few important female characters.
Now, before women start writing me hate mail to call me a hate male, it should, indeed must, be noted that women crop up with increasing frequency over the last few centuries, and the rate multiplies in the last four or five decades. Why is that? Well, there are many reasons.
Technology, for example, has made brute strength less important. The most important explanation, however, is that the social barriers to women have come down, often thanks to women pushing them down.
Unfortunately, for women, by the time they fully came into their own (in the West at least), the lion's share of "firsts" had been achieved by men: first human to fly, first human to cross the Atlantic, first human to the moon and so on. What was left for women were what I call the Amelia Earhart accomplishments -first woman to do X, Y or Z.
Of course, plenty of "firsts" in the realms of science, or possibly the arts, are still open to women (indeed, there've been plenty of firsts scored by women in these fields already). A woman still might cure cancer or write a PBS series most Americans would watch.
But, in general, the big-picture firsts, the non-women's auxiliary feats, are to be found off this rock. Colonizing Mars offers women unimaginable opportunities to go down in history as humanity's greatest pioneers, not just its greatest "female pioneers." There could be female Lewis and Clarks, female Columbuses, De Sotos, Magellans, Shackletons, you name it. There could be female Martian governors, revolutionaries and philosophers.
Indeed, the future is a blank page for unimaginable female achievements, which, if accomplished, would shrink the "disproportionate" dominance of men in the annals of history. A thousand years from now, disproportionate male preeminence in human history may well be ascribed to an unfair early start, a disproportionate fluke evened-out by those amazing Martian broads. Of course, this principle applies to African-Americans, homosexuals, Jews and every other minority shunned from the mainstream of human history for one reason or another.
And, oh yeah, it applies to human beings, period. Because there are great things left for humanity -in all of its forms -to do. Let's get started.