Human exploration and settlement of Mars may be just the challenge humanity needs today. (credit: NASA)
Why should humans go to Mars?
by Frank Stratford
Monday, December 21, 2009
Why should humans go to Mars? Many reasons for and against have been cited over the years, and many still struggle to see the relevance of this priority. It seems so far out, so detached from life on Earth, and in many ways it is. Mars is physically hundreds of millions of kilometers away. It is colder than the coldest environment on Earth and it has an atmosphere—or lack thereof—that would kill you within thirty seconds or do in a most unpleasant fashion. Compared to terrestrial destinations it loses hands down. However, we need to look at Mars in a different context.
|But in the end, why are we even considering such a journey? In a word: life.|
We don’t yet fully understand all the effects of microgravity but we do know that untreated or lacking countermeasures it can have serious health effects. We don’t know how much gravity is needed to avoid those problems: it’s possible the Moon’s gravity, one-sixth that of Earth, may be sufficient, but certainly Martian gravity, at one-third of Earth’s, should be no worse and may be much better. Mars also has readily available resources, including the most important: water, in relatively abundant amounts, compared to the Moon. Mars also has a roughly 24-hour day night cycle which is crucial for plant development.
But in the end, why are we even considering such a journey? In a word: life. We want to go there to see if we can find evidence of life, a second genesis, and if we don’t find it, we want to establish new life on Mars—our own. Some say that the problems of Earth should be dealt with first, that we are too immature as a species and should wait a while until we “grow up”, but here is the thing: for the first time in history a species on Earth has the knowledge and technology to ensure its own survival by seeding life on new worlds. To ignore this opportunity for some philosophical nirvana to come first could be considered as irresponsible as our environmental abuses also. If there is a planetary crisis, such as the asteroid impact 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, and we do nothing, then we will have lost it all.
This is the broad-brush view of why we need to go to Mars, but on a more personal level, what drives people to want to go to such places, so far away, so hostile to life? For many enthusiasts it is an escape, a chance for a new start and the challenge of a lifetime. The reasons for going will be different depending on whom you talk to. They are the same reasons people on Earth moved to hostile and far away environments here.
|We need to “sharpen up”, so let’s do something worthy of the effort, and something with the payoff equal to the effort put in.|
The difference is Mars is a whole other planet, not just a distant land. It can be seen as a challenge—an extreme challenge—and it is, so why go? It will test our knowledge, our resourcefulness, and the limits of our abilities in every way. It will be risky, and yes, people will die. But in today’s risk-averse world, the value of a challenge has been grossly underestimated. As people become more and more “stay at home” and turn to ever more push-button solutions, we are losing our survival instinct. Existing and living to simply relax at home where it is safe is not good for any of us in the end.
Take the obesity epidemic an example: people are piling on the pounds, sitting around in front of the TV, and literally shortening their life spans while they do this. Exercise is the key to health and growth for bodies and minds, and this also applies to our society. Expansion to new frontiers should be seen as extremely valuable to us now. In a world that is struggling with political solutions to big problems like the environment, hunger, poverty, and disease, we need a challenge like Mars now more than ever. We need to “sharpen up”, so let’s do something worthy of the effort, and something with the payoff equal to the effort put in. Mars, however we get there—be it a direct path or via the Moon, and with government programs or through private commercial space development—should be in our sights, for it has the potential to change our world in ways that we dearly need now.
Frank Stratford is the founder and executive director of MarsDrive. His writing is focused on human space exploration and Mars settlement issues, with a special focus on researching alternative Mars transport solutions. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.
At least, that's what some of the most innovative, intelligent minds of our age — Buzz Aldrin, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson— are saying.
Of course, it's extremely difficult to foresee how manned missions to Mars that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars each, could benefit mankind. It's easier to imagine how that kind of money could immediately help in the fight against cancer or world hunger. That's because humans tend to be short-sighted. We're focused on what's happening tomorrow instead of 100 years from now.
"If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before," Hawking said in 2008 at a lecture series for NASA's 50th anniversary.
That brings us to the first reason humans must colonize Mars:
1. Ensuring the survival of our speciesThe only home humans have ever known is Earth. But history shows that surviving as a species on this tiny blue dot in the vacuum of space is tough and by no means guaranteed.
The dinosaurs are a classic example: They roamed the planet for 165 million years, but the only trace of them today are their fossilized remains. A colossal asteroid wiped them out.
Putting humans on more than one planet would better ensure our existence thousands if not millions of years from now.
"Humans need to be a multiplanet species," Musk recently told astronomer and Slate science blogger Phil Plait.
Humans need to be a multiplanet species. — Elon Musk
Musk founded the space transport company SpaceX to help make this happen.
Mars is an ideal target because it has a day about the same length as Earth's and water ice on its surface. Moreover, it's the best available option: Venus and Mercury are too hot, and the Moon has no atmosphere to protect residents from destructive meteor impacts.
2. Discovering life on MarsNye, the CEO of The Planetary Society, said during an episode of StarTalk Radio in March that humanity should focus on sending humans instead of robots to Mars because humans could make discoveries 10,000 times as fast as the best spacecraft explorers we have today. Though he was hesitant to say humans should live on Mars, he agreed there were many more discoveries to be made there.
One monumental discovery scientists could make is determining whether life currently exists on Mars. If we're going to do that, we'll most likely have to dig much deeper than NASA's rovers can. The theory there is that life was spawned not from the swamps on adolescent Earth, but from watery chasms on Mars.
The Mars life theory suggests that rocks rich with microorganisms could have been ejected off the planet's surface from a powerful impact, eventually making their way through space to Earth. It's not a stretch to imagine, because Martian rocks can be found on Earth. None of those, however, have shown signs of life.
"You cannot rule out the fact that a Mars rock with life in it landing on the Earth kicked off terrestrial life, and you can only really test that by finding life on Mars," Christopher Impey, a British astronomer and author of over a dozen books in astronomy and popular science, told Business Insider.
3. Improving the quality of life on Earth"Only by pushing mankind to its limits, to the bottoms of the ocean and into space, will we make discoveries in science and technology that can be adapted to improve life on Earth."
British doctor Alexander Kumar wrote that in a 2012 article for BBC News where he explored the pros and cons of sending humans to Mars.
At the time, Kumar was living in the most Mars-like place on Earth, Antarctica, to test how he adapted to the extreme conditions both physiologically and psychologically. To better understand his poignant remark, let's look at an example:
During its first three years in space, NASA's prized Hubble Space Telescope snapped blurry pictures because of a flaw in its engineering. The problem was fixed in 1993, but to try to make use of the blurry images during those initial years, astronomers developed a computer algorithm to better extract information from the images.
It turns out the algorithm was eventually shared with a medical doctor who applied it to the X-ray images he was taking to detect breast cancer. The algorithm did a better job at detecting early stages of breast cancer than the conventional method, which at the time was the naked eye.
"You can't script that. That happens all the time — this cross pollination of fields, innovation in one, stimulating revolutionary changes in another," Tyson, the StarTalk radio host, explained during an interview with Fareed Zakaria in 2012.
It's impossible to predict how cutting-edge technologies used to develop manned missions to Mars and habitats on Mars will benefit other fields like medicine or agriculture. But we'll figure that out only by "pushing humankind to its limits" and boldy going where we've never been before.
4. Growing as a speciesAnother reason we should go to Mars, according to Tyson, is to inspire the next generation of space explorers. When asked in 2013 whether we should go to Mars, he answered:
"Yes, if it galvanizes an entire generation of students in the educational pipeline to want to become scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians," he said. "The next generation of astronauts to land on Mars are in middle school now."
Humanity's aspirations to explore space are what drive us toward more advanced technological innovations that will undoubtedly benefit mankind in one way or another.
"Space is like a proxy for a lot of what else goes on in society, including your urge to innovate," Tyson said during his interview with Zakaria. He added: "There's nothing that drives ambitions the way NASA does."
5. Demonstrating political and economic leadershipAt a February 24 hearing, Aldrin told the US Senate's Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness that getting to Mars was a necessity not only for science, but also for policy.
"In my opinion, there is no more convincing way to demonstrate American leadership for the remainder of this century than to commit to a permanent presence on Mars," he said.
If Americans do not go to Mars, someone else will. And that spells political and economic benefit for whoever succeeds.
"If you lose your space edge," Tyson said during his interview with Zakaria, "my deep concern is that you lose everything else about society that enables you to compete economically."