Mars and the need to imagine a different South Africa

Jacques van Heerden

Jacques van Heerden

15 August 2012

On 6 August, something extraordinary happened: NASA, the US space agency, landed a research craft called the Curiosity rover on Mars.

It will analyse dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as it explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover.

It was previously thought that nothing could have survived the harsh climate of Mars. Temperatures range from −143°C to 35°C, so at its coldest Mars is almost twice as cold as Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth. However, as scientists have studied the planet, they have learnt more about its geological history. In 2005 they found clear evidence that there is water on the planet, which raises the possibility that Mars may indeed support some form of life, even if only on a cellular level.

The mission, NASA estimates, will cost $2.5 billion. Is it worth it? By comparison, the recent bank bailout cost the US government over $30 billion.

It is difficult to underestimate the value of space exploration as an aspirational goal. It remains one of humanity’s loftiest ambitions, because it requires a great deal of imagination and practical problem-solving to accomplish. It also acknowledges humanity’s humble place within an immense and expanding universe we have only begun to explore.

Space travel also raises questions about how we see our place within this universe. From Star Trek to Space Odyssey to Alien and Prometheus, Science fiction books and movies have explored this in depth, painting both Utopian and dystopian futures, with and without alien races. The scientists of NASA probably have visions of one of these Utopian futures as they do their work.

Naturally it’s not enough to have grandiose visions; you also need the persistence or intelligence to realise them. The scientists and engineers who designed the Mars rover and its associated machinery had to contend with a myriad of difficulties.

First they had to get it to the planet, which is 570 million kilometres away (getting there is equivalent to travelling more than 14,000 times around the earth). They also had to ensure that it landed properly without damaging any of its very expensive equipment, including a number of cameras, and that this equipment would be able to function in the planet’s harsh environment.

This recent mission provides a stellar example of a combination of the idealistic and the practical, the ability to combine a grand vision of a new and better world with the determination to solve complex problems in a systematic and scientific way in order to make it happen.

The political necessity of Utopian thinking

In 1972, Rick Turner published a book titled The Eye of the Needle: Towards Participatory Democracy in South Africa. Turner, a radical white intellectual who lectured at the University of Natal, was later banned under the Suppression of Communism Act and assassinated, probably by apartheid agents, in 1978.

In the first chapter of his book, Turner makes a compelling case for the political value of imagination. He describes Utopian thinking as a mental exercise where you imagine all the possibilities, instead of focusing on what is possible within the circumstances at a particular time.

Turner suggests that Utopian thinking allows us to “explore the absolute limits of possibility by sketching an ideally just society” and warns that “The fact that something exists is no guarantee that it will continue to exist or that it should exist.”

He gives a neat example of the practical implications of Utopian thinking: “If a woman’s role is to make coffee, then morality consists in giving her enough money to buy the coffee and asking her nicely when you want it done. If, however, a woman could play other roles, then the man has to rethink his role, has to rethink what man–woman relations mean. The man and woman together have to create a new set of values.”

He argues that “Until we realize what other values, and what other social forms, are possible, we cannot judge the morality or otherwise of the existing society.” Also, “Unless we can see our society in the light of other possible societies we cannot even understand how and why it works as it does, let alone judge it.”

Appropriately, the word “Utopia” was originally coined by Sir Thomas More for a science fiction novel he published in 1516. The book depicts an imaginary island “enjoying a perfect social, legal, and political system”. The word Utopia has come to mean any “place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Imagination and curiosity

Imagination is what drives us forward as a species, and it is also what can make us kinder and less self-centred. If you can imagine how your own life could have been different, you will find it easier to show sympathy for people who have not been as fortunate. Similarly, if you can’t imagine other people’s pain, you would have little reason not to inflict harm on them.

You could make the argument that a lot of what is wrong with South Africa is down to a failure of imagination: the failure to imagine that a better, more equitable, and more efficient system is even possible.

Turner suggests that we have a duty to imagine our world, and ourselves, in radically different ways. We should embrace the possibility of life on other planets — life that differs very much from our own — as an opportunity to think very critically about our own problems and how these may be solved.

The full text of Turner’s book is available on the South African History Online website:

The NASA team that put Curiosity rover on Mars are imagining different worlds and futures for humanity. So too, we should be imagining different, even Utopian, versions of South Africa, so that we can do the complex and hard work required to make our society better.