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Mars base illustration
Sending humans to Mars, either for expeditions or for settlement, has long been an aspiration for space enthusiasts. But how can such as audacious goal be achieved? (credit: NASA)

To Mars, or, not to Mars?

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“Mars tugs at the human imagination like no other planet. With a force mightier than gravity, it attracts the eye to the shimmering red presence in the clear night sky…” ― John Noble Wilford, Mars Beckons

Every civilization seeks to achieve greatness and build monuments to be left to subsequent generations as high water marks of their value, demonstrating their essence, and providing a statement that its people were here. These monuments are crafted by the most important minds and shaped and sculpted by the most skilled hands. They are left proudly to their children, children’s children, and for some, scores of generations. The desire to build monuments and innovate is a fundamental attribute of human societies. The greats have left us with the pyramids, the Great Wall, the Panama Canal, the steam engine, railroads, skyscrapers, the screw propeller, the automobile, the airplane, and even cave paintings. Each wonder, each innovation, says that its people were here with their hearts, minds and hands. Great achievements advance the human condition and establish markers of important technical advances.

To Mars, or, not to Mars? This is a not-so-simple query worthy of an intense national debate and soul searching.

We are no different today. Over nearly sixty years we have broken free of the gravitational bonds that have anchored us to the planet Earth. Our satellites have visited all the planets, as well as asteroids and comets. We’ve left bootprints on the surface of the Moon. And although we have achieved many exciting innovations since that moment the flag was planted on the Moon over forty years ago, the Apollo landing remains the pinnacle of our achievement.

Now, as a nation and a people, we are confounded by a new question: To Mars, or, not to Mars? This is a not-so-simple query worthy of an intense national debate and soul searching. And for a spacefaring nation, it’s one that generates even more questions. Will it be worth it to go to Mars?

The US economy is currently saddled with a huge debt, and many parts of the global economy are faltering. These are tough times. Millions have been driven from the job market and are no longer counted as unemployed by cynical beancounters in the Labor Department. With little relief in sight, skeptics ask, “Shouldn’t we respond first to the basic needs of the people, of mothers and fathers, schools, public safety, the environment, before we commit to such an immense venture? Shouldn’t we understand how much of our precious national treasure will be drained to fund it? What has been the real value of space adventures to date?”

Genius heroes like Buzz Aldrin respond magnificently to these disheartening theatrics. Back in 2009, he articulated a perfect response in his book Magnificent Desolation:

”It’s not the value of the rocks we brought back, or the great poetic statements that will be uttered. Those things aren’t remembered. It’s that people witnessed that event. We are not going to justify going to Mars by what we bring back.”

To many, it seems a bit of madness to dream that someday we could build a colony on Mars. Then again, perhaps not. When I was born it was considered pure science fiction to imagine an astronaut could travel to the Moon, land and safely return. Yet, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong did just that. They bounced out and about on the surface of our Moon, and captured the imagination of the world. Millions of us watched with great pride and excitement here in the United States.

These were days when I was still trying to decide my future career and education choices. I remember talking to friends and neighbors and listening to scientific cynics who were quite sure and convinced that advanced electronics would not function in space. Some warned that if people foolishly went to space, their blood would boil. At the very least, they were sure that space travelers would become spatially disoriented and die as a result.

Of course, such hissing has confronted innumerable great achievements. It was not too long ago, for example, when the sound barrier also was thought unassailable. But on October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager wrapped himself into a rocket ship, secured the door with broom handle because of rib he had broken a day before, and then boldly proved the naysayers wrong. And Yeager’s achievement was no more daunting or courageous than the exploits of the early great European explorers who sailed across an uncharted ocean. They didn’t know what they would find on the other side. New knowledge and opportunities come from the best and brightest boldly reaching to confront grand challenges. We will only grow as a species by taking risks. They provide a measure of the human spirit.

But isn’t the idea of colonizing Mars crazy? Perhaps, but it is also true that the conditions on the surface of Mars are much closer to Earth than the surface of any other body in the solar system. The Martian environment is far better than the extremely hot and cold temperatures on Mercury, the furnace-hot surface of Venus, or the cryogenic temperatures of the outer planets and their moons. Humans have already explored natural settings on Earth that match most conditions on Mars. For example, the highest altitude reached by a manned balloon ascent, a record recently set in the recent Red Bull challenge, is nearly 39,000 meters; the pressure at that altitude is about the same as it is on the surface of Mars. And the extremes of cold in the Arctic and Antarctic match all but the most extreme temperatures on Mars. Overall, however, that Mars is not a very friendly place.

Seeking to put the same priority on going to Mars as we did to going to the Moon with Apollo—only now performed as a global endeavor—should serve as a motivation and catalyst to drive the global technical innovation engine.

In short, colonizing Mars would pose daunting challenges. So attempting colonization should not be attempted as a first step, nor attempted anywhere near the first steps on a new planet. As with the early Moon excursions, we first should go to Mars, orbit it, and return safely to Earth. Once we are confident that can be successfully achieved on a regular basis, the next step should be to send people there, to assess and explore, and bring them back safely. Next, we need to have visitors begin to build sustainable infrastructure on the planet, and return. Only then, when infrastructure is in place, should we even think of colonizing Mars.

But what would be the value, beyond the “wow” factor? In 1961, President Kennedy answered this eternal question when he described the need for a commitment to go to the Moon before the end of the decade. He said:

“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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because the challenge is one that we. Are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win… No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important to the long term exploration of Space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish… The decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, material, and facilities.”

Kennedy’s key point is applicable to any Mars venture would be that it would be invaluable to “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Seeking to put the same priority on going to Mars as we did to going to the Moon with Apollo—only now performed as a global endeavor—should serve as a motivation and catalyst to drive the global technical innovation engine. The technologies developed for a trip to Mars should produce effects comparable to those produced by technologies we developed for going to the Moon.

Another significant value that could be derived from a human Mars mission is that it will demonstrate US international space technology leadership. The US gained leadership values and lessons from the Cold War competition that drove the development of Apollo and, later, the Space Shuttle. These leadership values then evolved as the US and a number of nations constructed and operated the International Space Station. A drive to successfully travel to Mars could reenergize our domestic engineering industries and industrial base. Students and people inspired by a Mars venture could serve to stimulate engineering and science innovators who essential to economic and technical growth.

A more subtle benefit to be derived from a human mission to Mars is that it may prove to provide a new understanding of who we are. Finding life, or evidence of past life, on another planet will change us in ways that we can’t imagine. The picture of the whole Earth taken by a human on the way to the Moon is still today changing who we are: how beautiful and fragile and interconnected our home the Earth is, with no visible borders.

How can one confront the reasonable arguments against going to Mars? As we have discussed, given the challenges faced by our society, many ask: “Why should we spend billions on space when we have so many problems here on Earth?” One can respond to this type of no-win argumentative question with a question: “We do have many pressing problems today on Earth, but how would we face these problems without the knowledge developed by America’s space program in the past 50 years?” Information systems, material technologies, and many other developments have enabled the development of a highly interdependent world. Without space technologies, our society would be left to grapple with the concerns of changing climate without NASA-developed weather and earth observation satellites. Our world would not survive without advanced communications based on NASA developments in communications satellites, error-correcting codes and integrated circuits.

The drive to explore embodies very human and important desire for constant improvement and satisfying curiosity as to what is around the corner. It is this very desire for constant improvement and curiosity that drives our very souls to want to go to Mars. Tens of thousands of people, for example, have expressed an interest in applying for Mars One, a one-way journey to Mars, just as people in the past, back to our distant ancestors, journeyed across the globe. We are never happy with the status quo. We have always been looking to do things in a better way or with a new tool, or trapeze or canoe or sail to a new place, or experience a new adventure.

Can we afford to go to Mars? In a sense, the easy answer is no. We simply have too many pressing needs on Earth and in the United States to spend money on such a frivolous venture. And, to be sure, the cost of a human Mars program would be huge. At this point, even a nation such as the United Sates, with its vast resources, will likely find the cost prohibitive. But, much the same could have been said of the venture of going to the Moon. Therefore, I believe this challenge needs to be a worldwide endeavor.

Given the cost pressures, should we allow private enterprise to lead the way? Most of the truly astounding inventions and innovations of the 19th and 20th centuries were the product of private individuals: the train, steam ship, airplane, telephone, electric lighting, and more. Spaceflight was the one endeavor that was too expensive for the private entrepreneur to conquer. And, in the early years of the Space Era, there was no immediate return on investment. But have times changed? Should private enterprise take the lead and fly to Mars? The bicycle mechanic Wright Brothers beat professor Samuel Langley to achieve the first sustained heavier-than-air powered flight despite President McKinley providing Langley a $50,000 grubstake to achieve the feat. Langley worked on engines and paid no attention to aerodynamics, aircraft design, flight controls, wind tunnel tests, and the like, all essential to successful flight. The Langley gadget flopped off the house boat into the river time and again. The Wrights did it right and achieve their initial fame without government funding.

A human Mars mission should be a national goal, stimulated by a grand challenge and significant federal funding.

One alternative to government-run Mars expeditions may be “Act of Will” organizations. Act of Will entities do not pursue a market to make money as a private company would, they pursue challenges to advance the human accomplishment. Currently there are multiple Act of Will entities involved in the pursuit of going to Mars. Three of the highest profile are Inspiration Mars, which is proceeding with plans to mount a 2018 crewed flyby mission; Golden Spike, investigating mounting a two-person missions to the Moon for brief, Apollo-like stays; and Mars One, which plans to land humans on Mars—to stay—as early as 2023.

Private “Act of Will” entities such as these might be willing, for example, to risk propelling a mission to Mars with innovative technologies to shorten the travel time. They could achieve success with a round trip of reasonably short duration. This would greatly reduce the radiation exposure for astronauts, improving safety. Act of Will entities are also willing to risk loss of a crew, just the way barnstormers and test pilots used to risk their lives. These organizations might also take other risks NASA would never allow. I suspect part of this view is that every year adventure tourists are killed attempting to climb Mount Everest, and yet demand continues to increase.

A substantial fraction of robotic Mars missions have been unsuccessful. Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) is complicated and not well understood. Even the best of the best, JPL, has paid precious dollars and put many people to work, testing and retesting every line of code in every sequence possible to make sure the hardware did what it was told to do, autonomously, but has still suffered mission failures.

A trip to Mars and back cannot be easily performed. There will be plenty for private companies to help achieve the feat, however, and there should be critical roles for international partnerships on the grand adventure. Unfortunately, some private entities believe they can simply contract out parts and software, with their only job to assemble mature technologies. They are too optimistic. While these organizations are supported by brilliant engineers, they have not been forged in the crucible of actually getting systems to Mars, as the brilliant engineers at JPL have, and therefore these organizations lack:

  • Critical systems engineering skills and experience;
  • EDL expertise;
  • Focused management teams and program managers responsible for systems engineering, development, integration, and test; and
  • Appreciation for the amount of software needed, and development and testing required.
Is the US ready to step up to a JFK-like challenge once again in space to do, not what is easy, but what is hard?

A human Mars mission should be a national goal, stimulated by a grand challenge and significant federal funding. NASA’s budget today is roughly half a percent of the federal budget. Doubling that would be lost in the round off error in this overall budget. Going to Mars certainly fits Kennedy’s “reaching for new heights” language. While we figure out how to fix the economy, we should also start a conversation about going to Mars as a global endeavor. NASA needs to get some seed money to start defining the difficult problems, and begin developing solutions to some of the key challenges facing human Mars missions. Also, JPL needs to continue to break ground in understanding Mars and the engineering of getting there.

There is no shortage of innovation in this era, and many achievements could be hailed as our greatest contribution to the evolution of the species, from nanotechnology and nuclear energy to genetics and smartphones. Space must compete with other technology pursuits such as sustainable energy, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering. Is the US ready to step up to a JFK-like challenge once again in space to do, not what is easy, but what is hard?