That was the email heading from Nick Mann a week or so ago. Nick asked:
If humans saw strong signs of life on Mars when telescopes became powerful enough to detect it (1800’s?), how would’ve that impacted our economic space priorities? Would’ve we already have sent a manned mission there? Does it matter what stage the life was in (i.e. seeing villages & dirt roads vs glowing metropoli)?
I will predict a one-way mission to Mars, sent in the 1980s, but not too much earlier. For one thing, Mars is far away (duh). The moon shot already took quite a concentrated effort, and it is hard to imagine it being started before the 1950s, given earlier missile technology and the like. World War II already gave associated technologies a big boost, large relative to the likely effect of Mars-gazing on the political equilibrium for everyday science funding.
Ask a comparable question about today. Let’s say we could identify a distant planet as having intelligent life, or likely to have intelligent life. How much would the budget of NASA go up? Not enough to make a huge difference in the short run I suspect. It already seems there may be not-very-intelligent life on Mars (though don’t forget the slime mold, maybe the Martians are smart), and possibly something of interest on some moons of Saturn and Jupiter, and yet we are dismantling NASA’s space efforts.
If you wish to argue this the other way around, both voters and politicians up through the 1960s seemed to have a much more “can do” attitude about large science projects than they do today. As Peter Thiel mentioned recently, is it not odd — and bad — that we refer to ourselves as “the developed nations”?