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Mars astronaut illustration
Humans on Mars can do more science in days than rovers can in years. (credit: NASA)

Why a Mars landing could be terrific for science


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In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, “Why a Mars landing could be terrible for science,” Emily Lakdawalla argues that contamination concerns on Mars might be grounds to refuse to send astronauts to the surface of Mars anytime soon.

According to many Mars scientists, we have the data and have done the analyses that indicate that most places on Mars are, in fact, “non-special”: Earth microbes cannot reproduce there.

Unquestionably, special care must be taken not to contaminate Mars (or Earth), but her position isn’t necessarily representative of many experts in the Mars science community. In fact, her argument is so risk averse that, taken to its logical conclusion, it would make any type of human exploration of the Red Planet virtually impossible.

Potentially life-supporting environments, known as “Special Regions,” must, of course, be given special consideration. However, NASA and the broader science community have not been able to identify to date a single location on Mars that satisfies either the definition or the intent of such a region. According to many Mars scientists, we have the data and have done the analyses that indicate that most places on Mars are, in fact, “non-special”: Earth microbes cannot reproduce there. It’s recognized that while there are Martian locations for which insufficient data exists to establish whether those locations are “special” or not, NASA’s Planetary Protection policy treats these uncertain areas as if they are special until more data can be collected and analyzed.

Mars is largely an unknown world, and it holds many mysteries, unknowns, and wonders. That is why we are exploring it. We have the tools of modern science, including those of physics and chemistry, to help us to investigate, learn about, and respond to, any unknowns that we might encounter along the way, and we should not hesitate to use those tools. All these tools will be greatly enhanced when wielded by human explorers on the surface of the Red Planet. If we were to wait until we understand all these unknowns prior to sending humans to Mars, it is likely that we will never send humans—and, as a result, we will never solve those unknowns.

The human exploration of Mars will almost certainly be terrific, not terrible, for science.

To be clear, planetary protection concerns must be addressed when humans explore Mars, but current planetary protection protocols do not, as yet, address future human missions. As we gain more understanding of Mars as well as of human exploration systems and operational concepts, those protocols will have to be updated. However, given what we know about the advantages that human explorers will bring to Mars, scientific discovery and efficiency will increase by many orders of magnitude once human explorers are on the surface. Dr. Steve Squyres, the principal investigator of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, stated that human explorers could probably accomplish in one week what the rovers achieved in their first five and a half years.

Indeed, we firmly believe that the human exploration of Mars will almost certainly be terrific, not terrible, for science.


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