Nothing to see here, folks

'Make next stop Mars, Apollo astronauts say" was Tuesday's headline. Gad, I thought. How time flies. Can it really be 10 years since the 30th anniversary of the discovery that the moon is a dull place not worth visiting?

Mind you, I was a bit dismayed to learn last week that NASA had erased its video footage of the original mission. I mean, of all the people you wouldn't expect to say "Moon schmoon" NASA is right up there with the League of Poetasters. (Since you ask, a poetaster is a mediocre poet, the sort whom moon-June-spoon causes to swoon and who writes country tunes rhyming "night" with "hold me tight" as if it had not been tried and found wanting. Like space exploration.)

Where was I? Ah, yes. The moon landing is one of those hallmarks, the first public event people of a certain generation remember and I am in that generation.

It was a bit of a shock that NASA not only erased the tapes of my youth off some obsolete medium, but as a bulk job in a fit of such absent-mindedness they forgot they'd done it. If I'd been to the moon I'm pretty sure I'd remember it and keep the photos. Even though other than the famous Earthrise shot they're not really worth hauling out and looking at.

Let me not seem utterly prosaic here. I would be somewhat disappointed with human beings if they had not made some sort of effort to poke around up there. But in a further attempt not to seem prosaic let me add that if we had not gone and found nothing it would have left a lot more to the imagination. In my favourite science fiction, C.S. Lewis's Perelandra trilogy, his vision of the Martian canals is as beautiful as his aquatic Venus and both, I assure you, dramatically exceed the reality in every way.

You'd better take my word for it regarding Venus unless dissolving in 900 degree sulphuric acid is on your list of things to do before you die ... like right before. And if anyone does go to Mars they have as much chance of swimming in the canals as Neil Armstrong did of getting served green cheese by the man in the moon.

One proposal that turned up this week was to send a man to Mars even though we could not bring him back. Apparently we could dump supplies periodically and keep taunting him with the prospect of more colonists showing up eventually but that would be about it.

Yeah, sure, supply drops to Mars. What could possibly go wrong? Aside from the mysterious loss of signals, crashes, malfunctions on the surface and everything else that has happened to Mars landers so far except an alien incubating inside you then bursting revoltingly from your belly. The truth is, a trip to Mars strikes me as presenting only dull hazards. The victim's main excitement would be seeing if toenails grow more slowly in lower gravity and anxiously scanning the headlines for impending space program budget cuts.

Try to follow me here: Moon = grey dust, Mars = Red dust. That's space for you. Basically empty. Void. Hence the name. Even renaming it "Dust" would represent PR audacity to dwarf Leif Erikson's "Greenland" branding ploy.

In the first Perelandra book, Out of the Silent Planet, the hero does make one startling "discovery" that is true and, once mentioned, obvious. Between Earth and Mars he realizes space, far from being dark, is in a state of permanent noon because the sun is always shining.

That observation gave me pause. I mean sure, the sun shines on the planets and a good thing too, at least as far as Earth is concerned. We'd look silly and very cold without it. But there's a kind of weird exuberant abundance in ol' Sol pumping out the rays with equal intensity in every direction.

What I'm getting at is that space makes a lavish and exotic setting for the jewel called Earth. But I wouldn't want to live there and it's not a nice place to visit. OK, I'd cheer if someone actually did make the trip and came back saying "Ha ha, we went to Mars, what a dump." But the idea that there's some relevant collective purpose to such travel is silly.

Indeed, in Out of the Silent Planet Lewis's hero takes dead aim at the idea we should colonize space so that once Earth is trashed humans can live a bit longer somewhere else. Like so many visionary schemes, it's an attempt to get rich by piling up counterfeit bills. If billions of individual lives here on Earth don't somehow amount to a worthwhile endeavour, a few million more on some far less attractive and hospitable ball of rock and gas and blazing hot acid is hardly going to do the trick. And if they do, it will have more to do with Lewis's imaginary space than the real one.

So yeah, way to visit the moon. But if you want Mars, I say curl up on a moonlit night and crack open the Perelandra trilogy.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson