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Mars exploration illustration
Human exploration of Mars requires an innovative plan that offers a return on investment at every stage of its development. (credit: NASA)

The relevance of Mars


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Sending people to Mars some time in the future may seem today like a science fiction dream, and in many respects it is. However, if this project is to become reality, the most pressing questions we need to answer today are these:

  • Why go?
  • How to go?
  • How to pay for it?

This sort of program needs to be clearly defined and given a correct context as a priority in today’s world, something that has never really happened to date with Mars programs. Often we hear comments like “It’s too soon” or “The money could be better spent here on Earth” or “There are higher priorities to focus on” when debating this topic. So let’s begin with some clarity on this topic.

First, human missions to Mars, at least initially, are and always have been focused heavily on scientific exploration. This includes the search for evidence of life as well as the search for liquid water, mineralogy mapping expeditions, resource collection, comparative planetology, and more. Being so far from Earth, resources are literally a life-and-death issue for human missions to Mars and thus their availability needs to be established very early.

Human missions to Mars, at least initially, are and always have been focused heavily on scientific exploration.

These are fairly straightforward reasons for going, both practical and understandable. First and foremost is the search for life. Finding evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars would forever change our world in some very profound ways For many scientists Mars represents the most viable candidate for in-depth human exploration of another planetary body beyond our own Moon. Its atmosphere, while frigid and deadly, is still worlds apart from fiery Venus or the icy bodies in the outer solar system. Water and thus oxygen can be extracted from the atmosphere of Mars, and we know ice also exists just below the surface.

So the context of “why” Mars is important in 2010 is as an exploration frontier serving a wide range of scientific fields. Besides our own Moon, it is the planet we have sent the most probes to over the last 48 years. It is in this context of exploration that we need to judge how big a priority Mars is and, compared to other destinations in the solar system, if Mars is the target most within reach at this time and the one which represents the most value for dollars spent.

Answering the question of life on other planets is the driving force behind Mars exploration and always was. However, just how important is this question? Much like archaeology uncovering evidence of a lost civilization, the lessons that would come from finding life on Mars cannot be understated. First, we would know that life exists in other places in the universe, a fact that might pose an interesting challenge to advocates of intelligent design or creationism. Second, such a discovery would spur a new age of space exploration and innovation to discover what else is “out there”. Third, the existence or evidence of life on Mars would teach us about how life evolved in our own solar system and, perhaps, what lessons we can learn from climate change in this regard. Perhaps Mars had some single-celled organisms struggling to survive those first years of violent environmental changes but were wiped out by forces we are yet to understand? It would not be an understatement to say that on Mars, or other worlds, may lie the discovery which saves our own Earth from future extinction.

Understanding Mars can also tell us many things about our own planet, from geology to climatology, with much greater accuracy than simply focusing on Earth can do. Understanding Mars can also teach us about the formation and structure of other worlds in our solar system. As an exploration target, Mars does retain a high position of importance for scientists of many disciplines.

But if we take this question of human exploration of Mars out of this context, such programs do not make sense in a world reeling from one financial crisis to another. That is why whenever the topic of human Mars exploration is raised it is instantly opposed by a variety of critics. As government and private budgets tighten, exploration budgets are also squeezed hard, and it is often for the most challenging programs like humans to Mars that R&D dollars contract more quickly than in other, closer to home scientific priorities, such as ocean or atmospheric studies on Earth.

There is also another context against which Mars exploration loses ground, and that is when it is placed against the development of cheap access to space. Mars exploration is often viewed as an expensive rival program that would, in the opinion of commercial space advocates, simply sidetrack the more important goal of developing cheap space access. However, this view is based on old assumptions that look backwards instead of forwards.

The only way human missions to Mars will happen will be in the context of a program that has innovation as its core goal, and which finds a decent return on investment (ROI) for every step of the program.

The only off-world planetary body humans have explored is our Moon, and ever since that program human plans for Mars have suffered by being judged within the same parameters and constraints, good and bad points together. Many in the NewSpace community feel that a human Mars mission would just be another Apollo-style government program that spends billions on sending a select few to Mars with conventional rockets, return some rock samples, and be shut down as new administrations came and went.

Cheap space access is the holy grail of all who are interested in space, including those who want to see human missions to Mars. But there are serious questions we need to find solutions for before this sort of R&D can succeed. Many NewSpace advocates think that some guy tinkering in his garage or market forces will provide the impetus to overcome the obstacles to low-cost space access. Yet, truly reusable space vehicles of low cost will require exotic technologies and materials not yet developed (or event not yet in development). Their research and development phase will be steep, and the dollars required will be massive. And, even if such vehicles enter service, they will create potential security issues as anyone could launch into space at any time. International security is not something that can be ignored in this context.

Yes, there are many NewSpace companies on the rise with new and innovative ideas to space access, but in many cases their plans are barely beyond PowerPoint presentations. They are perhaps decades away from tests and real development paths. Successful spaceflight requires real hardware development, years of testing, and open-ended budgets.

A Mars program, in this context has an edge: human exploration missions would come about in the context of multiple government agencies all spending decades and billions on sending probes to Mars. It is a program that could also be used to fund R&D of innovative space vehicle designs that would, in turn, lower space access costs. Politically it stands a much higher chance of being approved.

The unique factors that influenced Apollo are long gone. Mars—or even future Moon exploration—will not happen today unless it makes sense financially, socially, politically, and environmentally.

Mars exploration is also often placed in rivalry to space solar power development, where the theory is that if we can invent some novel way of getting all the hardware required for solar power space stations cheaply, (or in as few launches as possible), that the massive energy market will justify the investment. This area is still very new, and in the end has created a false rivalry because its advocates look at humans to Mars in the old Apollo context, once again getting it wrong. It is not a question of Mars versus new space development, but how can such programs compliment cheap space access development? Getting the context right is crucial if we are to advance human exploration of Mars.

But what about the cost of human Mars missions? The only way human missions to Mars will happen will be in the context of a program that has innovation as its core goal, and which finds a decent return on investment (ROI) for every step of the program. No government or private entity could justify this sort of program right now, so we either give up on the dream of Mars, or get pragmatic about it.

The unique factors that influenced Apollo are long gone. Mars—or even future Moon exploration—will not happen today unless it makes sense financially, socially, politically, and environmentally.

Why Mars? To explore, as one of the top 5 exploration goals of humanity in our time.

How to go? Through a technological development path that requires benefits to industry and society at each step, not as a “spin off” or afterthought.

How to pay? Through a fiscally responsible development path that requires benefits to industry and society at each step.

In 2010 we do still conduct many “mega projects” (infrastructure), and no matter how far out they seem when started, they usually contain some clearly defined and relevant goal everyone can understand. Human exploration of Mars has to follow the same rules today. This is the new age and the new context. Mars can be achieved in our time, but it will take our brightest economists, scientists, lawyers, engineers, and industry titans working together with governments. This program must have at its very core the focus to create Earth-based technologies that benefit our society while furthering the goal of human exploration of Mars.

If this can be achieved then Mars—and indeed all of space—will be opened to us.


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