Mars has been in the news a lot lately.
Just recently, studies have shown that the red planet “belches” methane, harbors organic molecules and once was warmer and wetter than previously believed — all possible indicators of past, and maybe even present, simple life there.
And last month NASA launched its Orion spacecraft in a first step to eventually send humans on a journey to Mars.
The space agency calls a future human mission to Mars its “next giant leap.”
Actually, attempting to eventually send humans to Mars is a pricey, risky leap. And a poor use of a great deal of money.
There are, of course, good reasons for exploring Mars. The first is that Mars is the easiest place to reach to look for direct evidence of life beyond Earth. One of the biggest questions in science is whether or not life has originated more than once in the universe. Mars is the best place to look.
Another reason to explore is to study the geology of Mars, to answer a range of planetary questions that can improve our understanding of our solar system.
But there are many reasons not to send people to another planet.
Mars, as close as it is, is a planet too far. It would take well over a year to get there, work there and come back. It may prove impossible to get the astronauts back — a one-way trip is being considered, which raises troubling ethical questions. The astronauts would absorb dangerous doses of cosmic radiation. The mental anguish they are likely to suffer from living for so long in isolation, much of the time in zero to little gravity, is a recipe for profound psychological damage.
It’s also ridiculously expensive. Cost estimates are in the tens of billions of dollars. Based on previous experience with big government projects, we can expect the final cost to double or triple. By attempting to send humans to Mars we would divert a great deal of public money from potentially improving life on Earth for millions of people to just putting a few humans on another planet.
So why bother? The simple answer is people have a peculiar fascination with things that are hard to do. President John F. Kennedy famously stated in a 1962 speech, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
So we went to the moon between 1969 and 1972, a technical tour de force; a propaganda victory over the Soviet Union, our space-age rival. Inspirational at the time, but that was more than four decades ago and what, really, have we done with the moon? Planted a flag. Indeed we did gain advances in rocketry, computers, communications, avionics and robotics, but these were spinoffs from the difficult engineering task of finding a way to make “one small step for a man” on a close-by and barren sphere of rock and dust. We could have done just as well technologically by sending only robots.
Sending people to Mars will prove especially daunting. And I say this as a scientist who loves challenges. But the challenge ought to make good sense. Sending humans to Mars doesn’t.
The fact is, we already have been to Mars. We are there right now. We have been operating rovers on the surface of Mars since 1997, and landed another one, Curiosity, in 2012. The results have been spectacular. The robots have operated better than and for far longer than expected and are sending back excellent data and images that tell us more about that planet every day than any human on constant life support ever could.
Science is about discovery and we will continue to discover marvelous things by looking beyond our planet. It is the robots that are taking us there. At a fraction of the cost of human space travel.
And there’s a bigger reason for not wasting more money on human trips to nearby desert spheres. We currently are underfunding basic science right here on Earth. Our young scientists are poised and eager to make important discoveries on the planet where we need them most. They are destined to make amazing discoveries, if only we would adequately fund them.
Mars is undeniably interesting. It’s tantalizing and captures our imagination. But we’ve been there, we are there and we will continue to learn more from that marvelous red planet. If life exists there, or ever has, we will find evidence of it — with our robots.
In the meantime, there are urgent Earth-bound problems to solve. Let’s focus our resources on the basic sciences, which are beneficial for every person on this planet, and for the planet itself — the only one we don’t need a rocket to reach.
Michael Menaker is a professor of biology at the University of Virginia. He has conducted Mars-related basic research on circadian rhythms for NASA.
Today, as America plans to lead efforts to send humans to Mars in the early 2030s, it is important to clearly articulate the rationale for undertaking such ambitious missions.
This often has been a challenge, as there are dozens of compelling reasons to pursue such a goal. However, those reasons can be succinctly organized into the six categories set forth below. In addition, unlike the Cold War motivation of the 1960s that led us to the moon, the reasons for going to Mars are likely to result in a program that is far more sustainable than the Apollo lunar program, which ended in 1972 after only a handful of missions.
The reasons for sending humans to Mars fall within the following categories:
1. Discovery and Scientific Knowledge: Mars is the most scientifically interesting location in our solar system that humans can reach in the foreseeable future. Although robotic exploration of Mars over the past 50 plus years has provided us with a wealth of information and incredible discoveries, most experts agree that it will probably take human explorers to determine whether there ever was or even still is life on Mars and to conduct many other scientific investigations that are not possible with robots alone.
2. Inspiration and Innovation: Space exploration is widely recognized to be one of the most effective ways to inspire students to become interested in STEM education and it is a well-known driver of technology and innovation. Returning to the Moon after 50 years is unlikely to require major advancements in technology. In contrast, an ambitious mission to the next frontier of Mars will inspire new generations of engineers, scientists, physicians, innovators, educators, and industrialists to reach for the stars.
3. Prosperity and National Morale: Apart from national prestige, morale is essential for a nation’s growth and prosperity. U.S. led missions to Mars would not only make a bold and unequivocal statement that we are still capable of great things – perhaps the greatest achievement in human history – but it would also dramatically improve our national outlook and economy. Building on lessons learned from the International Space Station (ISS), commercial partners are anticipated to have a major and innovative role in the exploration of Mars. This involvement will be the underpinning of new and incredibly promising industries for the next century.
4. Security and Diplomacy: While Mars missions will not be run by the military, many of the capabilities required to achieve these missions have potential security applications. In addition, an ambitious and strong space program can be one of our most effective diplomatic tools, as people around the world look at our space program with awe and appreciation.
5. Advancement and Expansion of Humanity: Can humans establish a permanent presence on another planet? Mars offers the potential for self-sufficiency that simply is not possible anywhere else in the solar system with our current levels of technology. Mars has water, an atmosphere, and other resources that should allow us to live off the land. But, we won’t know if a permanent presence is possible until we try.
6. To Understand Earth: Mars is the planet in our solar system that is most similar to Earth. Mars used to be a warm and wet planet like Earth, when Mars had a much thicker atmosphere than it does today. What happened – and could the same thing happen on Earth? Our analysis of what could happen to the Earth cannot be based on just one data point – that of the Earth. It is imperative to understand the evolutions of other planets, particularly planets like Earth so that we can wisely take care of our home.
In addition to these overarching societal reasons, there are some immediate political and commercial reasons to keep Mars as the focus of our human spaceflight program.
1. Congressional Support: Mars has stronger support than any other destination for human space flight, and this support has been consistently bi-partisan in nature. This has been made clear by numerous NASA Authorization bills, as well as in a NASA Transition Bill that was passed by the Senate in late 2016.
2. Industry Support: Numerous American corporations have invested time and resources in designing mission architectures to send humans to Mars. Companies like Boeing, SpaceX, Lockheed, and Aerojet Rocketdyne have released plans and other companies have provided valuable concepts on how we can conduct these missions in an affordable manner.
3. Public Support and Enthusiasm: Unlike the Moon, Mars continues to generate significant public interest and support, especially with young people. Hollywood has recognized this interest and responded with successful movie and television projects. Recent polls have confirmed that support for Mars exploration remains high.
4. Humans to Mars is Affordable and Achievable: Recent workshops and studies have also shown that missions to Mars are both achievable and affordable. NASA will not require a large increase in its budget to achieve this goal of landing humans on Mars by 2033.
There is no doubt that Mars will be challenging. But after 55 years of human space flight, 50 years of studying Mars, 16 years of permanent presence onboard the ISS, a massive expansion of international and commercial space capabilities, and years of Mars forward technology development, we are far more ready to send humans to Mars than the nation was when President John F. Kennedy committed the U.S. to landing humans on the Moon.
Mars is our challenge, and our opportunity.
Chris Carberry is CEO and Co-founder of Explore Mars, Inc.
Joe Webster is Director, DC Strategy, Explore Mars, Inc; an attorney at a DC