Last week, Stephen Hawking gave humanity a startling prediction.

“We won’t survive another 1,000 years without escaping our fragile planet,” the physicist said.

Hawking emphasized the critical need for our species to continue space exploration and expansion into the universe.

Such sentiments have also been articulated to some degree by others. Scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who recently spoke at UF, also emphasize the importance of continuing human expansion into the universe.

To these scientists, the next destination is clear: Mars.

Tyson has spoken on numerous occasions of the cultural impact an expedition to Mars would have. He imagines a future in which the younger generation will be excited by a Mars mission, inspiring them to create a better future for humanity. To Tyson, an expedition to Mars would be an investment.

So, how far is the United States from a manned mission to the Red Planet? Unfortunately for Americans, the U.S. isn’t leading the charge. NASA doesn’t have any plans to bring humans to the surface of Mars, but it is planning to set people in orbit of the planet in the 2030s.

Russia, on the other hand, is assuming the role of the ambitious leader of a manned Mars mission. In 2011, a group of volunteers from China, Europe and South America participated in the Mars-500 experiment, where they were confined to a mock spaceship for 520 days, simulating a round-trip to Mars.

Although this might not seem like much, such a gesture of international fellowship — something the United States has historically enjoyed offering — could signal the start of a new leader in the space race.

I would remind the reader that since the retirement of the space shuttle, NASA has no primary vehicle for sending people into space. To get to the International Space Station, our own astronauts take a lift on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Russia isn’t the only threat to American dominance of the race to Mars. A group of Dutch entrepreneurs plans to send a group of humans to the Red Planet one-way. The project, called Mars One, would be funded in part through a reality TV show chronicling the adventures of the travelers.

Mars One is searching for volunteers from the public for the trip and has already collected 45,000 emails from interested parties. I expect this number will skyrocket as time progresses and the plans of Mars One come into fruition.

Although I’m hopeful for this initiative, the fact is no private enterprise has done so much as put a satellite in orbit of Mars. Even Russia has had problems with getting probes to Mars. It would seem NASA is still our best hope for getting humans to the planet.

But why go to Mars at all? We have enough problems here, don’t we?

A manned trip to Mars would change everything.

There is no greater force for good today than the exploration of the cosmos. A renewed interest in expansion would change a lot for the better, but more than anything, it would change the way we view ourselves.

From Earth, Mars is just a pale, red dot. Imagine what Earth must look like from Mars. Imagine what a revolution in consciousness it would be to have one of our own, a representative of humanity, touch down on that world and behold our home, Earth, as nothing more than a pale, blue dot.

I’m not sure there is a more inspiring and humbling image: Look at how small we are. From a cosmic perspective, Earth is a very small place.

But look at how far we’ve come: Our small, fragile bodies have endured the harshness of space and time to finally sail the seas of space and touch the sands of another world. That image is something that will more profoundly and positively change humanity than any laws, speeches or stimuli ever could.

Mars or bust.

Brandon Lee Gagne is an anthropology senior at UF. His column runs on Fridays. You can contact him via [email protected].

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