The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Astronaut planting flag on Mars
Human exploration of Mars is the only goal that can truly focus not just the space agency but the nation as a whole, according to the author. (credit: NASA)

Mars: the only goal for humanity

Humanity, and the ever-shrinking Earth, needs a resolute, rigorous, and inspirational goal that will bind consciousness, ideals, and nations by putting humanity on a positive path for the future. Placing humans on the surface of Mars is the only goal that humans are able to initiate that is intrinsically visionary and motivating, and the only feat and event that can instill such global inspiration. With the continued exceptional success of last two Earthly emissaries, the Mars Exploration Rovers, and the prospect of a fresh exploration initiative growing inside NASA, Mars is once again in the limelight. These efforts follow on the heels of several successful programs including Mariner, Viking, Pathfinder, and the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey platforms that are themselves still operating in orbit around the planet.

Even in the light of this recent impetus, though, the question of “what next” still persists. What is our nation’s and space program’s goal for the foreseeable future and how can we attend to the desire to positively motivate future generations? The current exploration initiative addresses this, but only to a certain point. Given these recent pathfinding awards and expenditures in NASA’s pursuit of developing and understanding this initiative, it is difficult to understand why no really attainable and concentrated goal has yet been developed and wholeheartedly championed. The only way to accomplish this feat is to instill an efficient and effective program by providing and backing a sincere and focused goal. First is the setting of a worthy long-term goal, followed by the implementation of a series of short-term attainable goals that directly lead to the fulfillment of the initial overarching goal. Basic human psychology teaches us that. An additional example is that this exploration initiative places Mars into the category with “beyond” when considering human missions; a nebulous and out-of-sight goal when the true focus should only be Mars.

This exploration initiative places Mars into the category with “beyond” when considering human missions; a nebulous and out-of-sight goal when the true focus should only be Mars.

Furthermore, when asking the question of what, we must always consider the question of why. If a goal is pursued without firm reasons and foundations, then its results and extent will be fleeting. It can be argued that this is why the Apollo lunar program ended after the United States beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. Ironically, the US and Russia are now working hand-in-hand on the construction and operation of the International Space Station. Yet, current programmatic and governmental policy still provides little in the way of focusing or even defining current space exploration goals. This state was prophetically espoused during a 1966 conversation between the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) Director Robert R. Gilruth and the Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight George E. Mueller. Gilruth voiced the concern, during what many in the field now consider the golden era of American space flight exploration, that “the future of manned space flight… is in jeopardy because we do not have firm goals.” Moreover, this lack of conceptual structure and championing is continually thwarted and plagued by the short-term turnover and posturing within the nation’s political arena. The only way to realize great long-duration visionary undertakings in a multifarious and capricious political environment is to disassociate individual ego from action and goal. So again we should ask, why is there no focus to our endeavors for the expansion of humanity into the cosmos?

In an attempt to delve further into the question of why there should be a manned mission to Mars, it is this author’s belief that we must broaden and support additional, nontraditional, or un-championed arguments for continuing and expanding the role of humans in space. Historically, many in the space community have argued and touted science as the primary and most important reason for space exploration. Politicians seem to quickly follow suit and latch on to this argument primarily because the concept of science is nearly magical and can be promoted and sold to the public without a lot of in-depth knowledge. Additionally, neither short-term returns nor life-changing results are routinely expected as a result of these magical goings on. Today, in this ever shrinking and interconnected world, there exists a greater need to provide a distinct goal that is able to gather and focus humanity on a single, positive path. Mars is the only extraterrestrial destination and choice available when all aspects, benefits, means, and results are considered. Of primary importance are the potential influences and affects on Earthbound humanity, which include inspiration, international cooperation, international bonding as witnesses of a single magnanimous event, survival of the species, and the possibility of innumerable unexpected technological and resource developments. And yes, a plethora of basic scientific returns that will help address the continuing fundamental questions of life and the evolution of the universe, which will ultimately help explain how our little blue planet has and continues to evolve.

Let’s focus on one of the most prominent and endearing reasons for choosing Mars as the primary destination of our human space flight goals. That is, the inspiration of future generations. For years, our public representatives and those pursuing office continuously tout the need to bolster enrollment (and thereby interest) in engineering, math, and science, and therefore support any program—public or private—that seems to promote education in these fields. The overarching cure to the problem has been to throw money at it or establish policies that try to entice students and teachers alike. These have been Band-Aid cures at best. Real education can only occur in light of motivation, and that means motivating students as well as the teachers and even policymakers. A person has to want to learn by seeing a personal benefit in their future or, to a lesser degree, some altruistic sense of curiosity must be instilled. Once the problem of motivation has been addressed, then free market economics will be poised to support the expanding needs of the educational system. When students are motivated to learn, then a means of supplementing the cost either has been or will be found. Again, this author points out that there is only one modern, human-directed goal that has the intrinsic magnitude to provide the long-term impetus and inspiration for engendering this base level of human motivation.

Many in the space community have argued and touted science as the primary and most important reason for space exploration. Politicians seem to quickly follow suit and latch on to this argument primarily because the concept of science is nearly magical and can be promoted and sold to the public without a lot of in-depth knowledge.

A historical analogy can further lend rational to this treatise in that the demise of advanced societies and cultures can be compared through the examples of the Roman Empire and the Chinese Ming Dynasty, where expansion and exploration over many years allowed the imaginations, perceptions, and knowledge of the inhabitants to vastly expand, thereby further bolstering their societies’ intrinsic strength and standard of living. The downfall, in this author’s opinion, began just after these societies breached a combined peak in their technological, economic, territorial, and mental expansion: a point of cultural complacency that an organization or society reaches when it has no further intrinsic want or external force driving the need to fulfill the basic human motivation to explore. The United States now seems to be rapidly following suit, and has displaced, if not lost, its pioneering and frontiersman ideology and mentality. Those base mindsets are the ones that helped to make this country the great nation it is today. As a nation and species, we need to assess our current path and decide whether or not we see the need to physically and mentally expand the frontiers of humanity. The alternative is to just turn inward, to be crushed by the ancient egotistical, cultural, and political forces that engender fear and preempt exploration and expansion.

Finally, in order to get to Mars, many believe that we need to take a series of shorter steps and prepare by completing the International Space Station or by returning to the Moon or some other intermediate destination. Currently, this author believes that there are few, if any, efficient reasons to use the Moon as a stepping stone for going to Mars, and the arguments for continued inclusion of the ISS in future program and mission architectures are mostly economically and politically driven. No new technologies need to be developed in order to achieve a successful, safe, and economically viable Mars mission now. Mars is a planet with an atmosphere and resources that preclude the Moon from acting as a relevant analogue, and our current space program is quite adept at operating spacecraft in the vacuum of space for timespans that double the most modest estimate of the one-way transit time to Mars. Other short-term steps, not longer than one or two years in length, must be developed in order to the maintain motivation, support, and successful completion of the task. By insuring a simple, effective, and efficient mission and program design, implemented publicly or privately, we can make this quest a reality within our lifetime.

Though the recent and upcoming robotic missions have been spectacular and have peaked the curiosity of the public, this too shall fade over time. In the absence of novel discoveries and vicarious interactions, this waning of interest becomes magnified if mission architectures and goals are repeated or downsized year after year. The time has come to align and focus the goals of our robotic emissaries with the eventuality of human missions to Mars. Placing humans in front of those far-flung cameras, creating a living record of humanity’s next great migration, combined with an impetus to focus today’s space exploration programs, will spark a renaissance in global motivation and self-perception. Lastly, the number one reason for why we will go to Mars is simply because we want to, and this author personally wants to not only see this endeavor accomplished within his lifetime but to be part of the magnificent team and era that will make it happen.