Mars is known as the Red Planet because its surface soil is full of rust. The same red-orange brittle, flaky stuff that iron turns into when it oxidizes. To ancient astronomers the redness alluded to blood (I’m guessing), so it’s named Mars after the god of war. I find the identification hauntingly apt: blood is red precisely because it contains oxidized iron.

Red is also the color of Communism…a Martian connection? Perhaps communists are from Mars? (I find the identification hauntingly stupid!)

The Bolsheviks’ color was red (probably also alluding to blood), the Russian Imperial forces’ color was white (I forget why, don’t care). And China’s main flag color is red, true to its Communist revolutionary roots. The jingo “better dead then red” is one of those old rallying cries against Communism. No matter that China is only superficially communist and more transparently crony-capitalist. For the typical old-time Cold Warrior, China is the biggest, baddest bogeyman in the room. For the old time Cold Warrior, the War is alive and well, and the battle front is wherever their paranoid gaze takes fix.

Which brings me to last week’s rant by the famous astronaut Buzz Aldrin, where he promotes the manned colonization of Mars. He starts off the article by emphasizing that China is aiming to beat us in the space race. Never mind that China can’t beat us in life expectancy, infant mortality, air quality. (They’re more likely ‘beating us’ in the photovoltaic race…but I digress.) The people that claim to speak for the inhabitants of China are aiming to put people on the Moon, Aldrin claims, and he wants to counter-punch with a mission to Mars. Look what he writes:

…China just announced plans to lead humanity in to the moon [sic] and beyond, the tail of their comet a strong defense mindset. The Chinese challenge comes at a time of a dangerous convergence, the international debt crisis and a contentious, highly consequential presidential election. In short, 2012 is an inflection year — the year we will and must decide whether the U.S. has the will and ability to lead the world in human space exploration. For me, I am betting we do — and here is how I suggest we begin… [T]o make a real difference — from an exploration, science, national security and international leadership perspective — our Nation needs to commit to seeking a permanent presence on Mars. This idea has already been widely supported by leaders in both political parties — and seems central to the vision many Americans have for the country.

China announces that the space race is back on, and Aldrin announces that America is going to win it! Of course, it’s no secret that the space race provided a context for funneling tax dollars towards the development of weaponry, the same Star Wars-ey rocketry that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. I think that’s what Aldrin’s referring to with the “strong defense mindset” in the tail of the Red Sino-comet. And Aldrin, for some spectacularly oblivious reason, seems comfortable laying it all on the table: in one sentence he conflates national security and international leadership with exploration and “science.” A man of science, Buzz Aldrin is. (Though he apparently turned-down a full scholarship from M.I.T. to study as West Point. A man of war, Buzz Aldrin is.)

Look at China (while you’re at it, look at India): countries with hundreds of millions of people living on less than $100 a month want to fly to the moon!? Imagine one in three Americans living in abject poverty, while Buzz Aldrin made his historic Moon mission. Would that have made America great, to spend our money on the Moon mission while over a third of Americans lived in Third World conditions?

I just finished reading John Ralston Saul’s brilliant book, On Equilibrium. The book illustrates how there is a dearth of memory, intuition, and imagination in our collective priorities. How forgetful, how unimaginative are we to repeat the errors of the past, in an effort to relive the technological glories of our past? The book provides multiple insights into how fear motivates a blind faith in reason and technology, especially in the present era, where temporal power has followed directly from scientific-technological innovation. Here’s an excerpt (p. 290 of the 2001 edition) under the heading, “False Freedom”:

Flight into the future. Certainty. Truth. Inevitability.

All of these [notions] reiterate a state of fear. How do we escape fear? By escaping reality. And how do we escape reality? By discovering the truth. By proclaiming a future Utopia. By revealing uncontrollable forces. By limiting our interventions to managing the consequences of these certainties. We are the happy instrumental slaves of great rational truths.

And so we are free. Free of responsibility. Free of doubt. Free to act as we please.

No doubt: walking on the Moon was gloriously inspirational for all of humanity…except for the flag-planting part. But the likes of Aldrin catalyzed the Cold War, where unchecked industrial expansion and raging xenophobia nearly took humanity to a smoldering, radioactive anticlimax. The likes of Aldrin will use our competitive instincts to goad us into building empty technological idols. The first thing we can do is to recognize arguments for the prioritization of international domination, cast into the more palatable forms of leadership or defense, and to realize their foundations in fearfulness. We do not have to be afraid of the Red Planet: it’s always been way out there, on the edge of our imagination, where it belongs.

Ryan MB Hoffman has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. He is mostly interested in how protein molecules fluctuate throughout their functional processes. During his doctoral work he studied troponin, which is a switch that regulates striated muscle contraction. He works as a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego, at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. He is active with the Intrinsically Disordered Proteins subgroup of the Biophysical Society. Ryan likes to remind people that his contributions to TRN are performed entirely using his personal resources.