If Dennis Tito's manned flyby of Mars launches early next year as originally planned, the protesters will probably far outnumber those who come to cheer. Who would have thought that a mission to Mars could so divide this nation?
The fault is clearly Tito's. He may be a wizard at investment management but he needs a public relations consultant to preview what he will say at a press conference. Before that 2013 audience of media skeptics where he announced plans for the flight, he handled technical questions with skill. But when he discussed the background needed for the two astronauts, he created the storm of controversy that now plagues what ought to have been a universally supported venture.
Tito's gaffe came when he detailed the qualifications required of those seeking to ride his ship to Mars: a technologically-adept, married, middle-aged couple with adult children. That did it. Alarms rang in advocacy headquarters all over America. Attorneys prepared lawsuits on a variety of grounds. Already concerned about the cost of the Mars flyby, Tito had to add in millions more for legal fees. First comes the court fight, then the Mars flight.
Who's upset? Start with America's senior citizens. Did Tito really think that AARP would accept his guidelines without complaint? He automatically ruled out anyone beyond "middle age." Come on, Dennis. A lot of oldsters, taken in by your hype, dreamed that they could be on that first flight. In essence you said: "Sorry. If seniors want to go to Mars call Dial A Ride."
Everyone under 40 is also offended. You may be old enough to fight in the Middle East but you're not old enough to fly to Mars. Tito's forgotten that he was young once, with brash ideas and a world to conquer. Give the kids a chance, Dennis.
Even those otherwise qualified middle aged singles won't get a chance to fly. Christian Mingles could surely find a compatible pair of singles who would enjoy a year and a half of togetherness.
But the angriest protest comes from elsewhere. The gay and lesbian community, fresh from equal rights victories in state legislatures and the courts, have condemned Tito's guidelines. In light of the Supreme Court decision recognizing gay marriage, will Tito now consider a legally married gay couple, or are married lesbians a flight risk? Even if he accepts applications from legally married gays, Tito still has ruled out those other same sex couples who live together outside wedlock.
Now that the Supreme Court has thrown out the federal definition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman, will Tito still consider only straight married couples?
At least Tito needn't worry about complaints from polygamous multiples. His spacecraft holds only two adults.
Advocates for the disabled also challenged Tito. Hasn't he heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act? All Americans should have access to public places. Mars is still public, Dennis. If you want this voyage to take place in 2018, you'd better not tangle with the ADA.
One other group was aroused by Tito in the question and answer segment of the press conference. He was asked if the real purpose of the 2018 flight was "to beat China to Mars. Yes, beating China was indeed an unstated goal. "One worlders" didn't like that. With Russians and Americans working so closely on the International space station, why must we return to nationalistic motives for a flight that should bring all mankind together?
Tito is not without support. The Tea Party rallied behind him. That champion of traditional marriage, Rick Santorum, gave Tito's selection standards a thumbs up. Fox News gave him an enthusiastic endorsement. And aging anti-communists applauded his America Alone stand. Needless to say, so did Donald Trump.
Tito's dream stirred the nation, but not entirely in the way he had expected.
Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona. firstname.lastname@example.org