Upon logging into my Facebook last week, I found two fantastically different news articles flung together at the top my screen in a brilliantly odd juxtaposition. The first was an article about a proposed personed mission to Mars that immediately overwhelmed me with a terrifying sublime that only a press release seemingly based on a science-fiction movie can trigger. To me, the prospect of placing humans on a neighboring planet seems like a fledgling endeavor light years from our current reality. However, the expedition is currently penciled in for 2025.
The mission will be managed by the Dutch company Mars One and carried out by a team of four volunteers who, in a Hunger Games-esque twist, will train and compete for the privilege with other potential teams in what promises to be a bizarre reality TV show. Once trained, the victors will sojourn 35,000,000 miles to the foreign planet and begin the process of colonizing it. But there’s one more very important piece to this job description: there is no return ticket. Also, there were over 200,000 applicants.
Accompanying the article was a video interviewing three of these applicants: a British professor, an Iraqi turned American, and a Mozambican extrovert. In the video, the three share why they view this mission not as a death sentence, but an exciting and meaningful way to live out their lives. Their answers were fascinating but also existentially straining for me as a listener.
A major focus of the video was how the candidates would handle bidding an irreversible farewell to their loved ones and (apparently unimaginable to the interviewers) how they would survive without sex. The Iraqi woman responded bluntly that she had already said a permanent goodbye to everyone in her life when she deferred to America and that she simply doesn’t consider love as a necessity for her. The lack-of-culture shock and inevitable disconnection Mars promises don’t intimidate her.
The Mozambican man, on the other hand, claimed that this world simply isn’t a good place to be anymore. And who can blame him? The Middle East is split open with war, South America is stripped bare by deforestation, Southeast Asia is lacerated by human trafficking, and scientists estimate our oceans are within years of being depleted and polluted beyond repair. At this rate, it seems like we may have no other option but to place our hopes in another world altogether.
For the professor, however, the red speck offers another hope: a legacy far beyond that of Neil Armstrong—one giant leap for him, one colossal catapult for humankind. The Brit explains that he has no children planned and that this accomplishment could be the piece of himself he leaves behind for future generations. Politicians, actors, and authors, he explains, will eventually be crowded out of society’s collective memory, but our soon-to-be-interplanetary species will never forget the first people to pioneer the cosmos.
As I sat, jostled by these answers, I felt launched into an expanding state of intrapersonal crisis. What if human connection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? What if our world is beyond fixing? What if I’m incapable of impacting such an impossibly bustling and irreparable place? I felt futile and claustrophobic. However, the oddest and most uncomfortable thing I felt was left behind. I became host to a sensation akin to being invited out for a night of bars and clubs with friends but really just wanting to snuggle up on the couch with some trusty cheese and watch a familiar Disney movie for the fifteenth time. Am I boring? What if my friends have fun without me? Are Disney movies or earth itself still cool?
It was with my worldview knocked totally off its axis that I then turned to the second article, featuring a photo of a miniature penguin knit into a tiny Superman suit. The article was about Alfie Date, the oldest man in Australia, who has lived to the marvelous age of 109. One may wonder what sort of daily tasks are deemed worthy by someone with so much practice spending days. For Alfie, the answer is knitting sweaters for tiny injured penguins. After a recent oil spill left a large portion of Australia’s tiny penguin population injured and oily, an organization reached out to seasoned knitters who could provide the penguins warmth while preventing them from preening their now-toxic feathers. Date determined this to be a worthy use of his precious time, and there are now many healthy, unbearably adorable penguins with him to thank.
Upon finishing the small article, I was left with the unavoidably fuzzy feeling that comes from seeing pint-sized animals in human clothing but also with a deep sense of comfort. Yes, there will be oil spills and injured penguins in this world. There will be terrorist attacks and times we feel lonely and people we lose, and there is always a chance that we will be forgotten in the bustle. But there are also kind-hearted centenarians knitting sweaters and we will always have a unique pair of needles in our own back pockets. And I think that’s enough for me.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.