Despite hurdles, human missions to Mars are in the works

May 10, 2005
Despite hurdles, human missions to Mars are in the works

Rovers setting the stage

While all the excitement on Mars focuses on the amazing durability and discoveries of two robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, two Mars Exploration Rover (MER) scientists remind Mars aficions that the rovers are part of a coordinated plan to put humans on the Red Planet some day.

Image: Mars Exploration Rover mission scientists remind us that the amazing success of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity is a harbinger for the day when humans inhabit the Red Planet.

The major drawback to a human mission to Mars is preparing for the one to two years of radiation and microgravity exposure that astronauts must endure. While that is a large hurdle, enabling technologies are emerging that should be able to make this goal a reality over the next couple of decades, and America should go for it.

That's the theme of a report from NASA's 2002 Astrobiology Academy appearing soon as a paper in Acta Astronautica. Bethany Ehlmann, MER scientist, 2004 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and current Rhodes scholar, is the lead author of the paper, which features ten other authors who were undergraduate and graduate students at universities nationwide.

Ehlmann, advised by Raymond E. Arvidson, Ph.D., James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and chair of Washington University's earth and planetary sciences department in Arts & Sciences, worked with Arvidson on the rovers Spirit and Opportunity in the winter and spring of 2004 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"President Bush has announced a long-term vision for space exploration, one focused on exploring our solar system and universe and understanding if life started and evolved elsewhere," said Arvidson. "A central theme is whether or not Mars has or had life, using robotic exploration first, followed by detailed study using humans and robotic systems in coordinated ways. Bethany's NASA Astrobiology Academy study is very nicely aligned with the President's vision and forms a basis for thinking about how to implement an exciting exploration strategy over the next several decades."

Ehlmann and her co-authors state that a decision to explore Mars with humans will be a political one, driven by three factors: economics, education and exploration.

"A human mission to Mars would bring back immense amounts of scientific data, and serve as inspiration for the next generation of space scientists to enter critically needed science and engineering disciplines," the authors write. But, "Exploration alone cannot justify the increased risk."

The present human Moon-Mars initiative needs to be very careful about not draining funding from basic astronomical research and earth observation systems, Ehlmann said.

"We need to strike the right balance between human and robotic, and I'm worried that the right one is not being struck," Ehlmann said. "My co-authors and I weren't arguing for a zero sum game (sacrifice basic science for human spaceflight) but rather additional funding for human Mars mission planning. We were arguing this should be added to the list of society's priorities — behind AIDS research and poverty eradication, of course.

"Working on MER, I was continually blown away by what those little robots could do. They're amazing pieces of engineering, a testament to human ingenuity, and have a lot of discoveries left to go. But they have limitations. It took 56 days to explore a 20-meter crater (Opportunity), a year to travel 4 kilometers (Spirit) — something you can leisurely run in a half hour. It always left you itching to go a little further, wondering what's over the horizon, what the rovers might not reach."

Ehlmann said that the human touch to space exploration is a driving force of discovery.

"Would the underwater world have been so appealing without the visionary human touch of Jacques Cousteau?" she asks. "Exploration and curiosity are in our blood. In my lifetime, I hope we take the leap to Mars and really see what's out there."

Explore further: Geologists help NASA plan for human exploration of Mars

Related Stories

Geologists help NASA plan for human exploration of Mars

October 29, 2015

This week, NASA is assembling scientists from across the country in Houston to start thinking about locations on Mars that would be good candidates for human exploration. Among those gathering for the Landing Sites/Exploration ...

Bio-mimicry and space exploration

October 29, 2015

What DaVinci was talking about, though it wasn't called it at the time, was biomimicry. Biomimicry is the practice of using designs from the natural world to solve technological and engineering problems. Were he alive today, ...

Mars will come to fear my botany powers

November 10, 2015

NASA seems to believe that making space habitable will require more finesse than Elon Musk's "let's nuke Mars" plan, and has funded a couple of synbio projects which seek to provide "the means to produce food, medical supplies ...

Gravity, who needs it? NASA studies your body in space

November 18, 2015

What happens to your body in space? NASA's Human Research Program has been unfolding answers for over a decade. Space is a dangerous, unfriendly place. Isolated from family and friends, exposed to radiation that could increase ...

Recommended for you

'Material universe' yields surprising new particle

November 25, 2015

An international team of researchers has predicted the existence of a new type of particle called the type-II Weyl fermion in metallic materials. When subjected to a magnetic field, the materials containing the particle act ...

CERN collides heavy nuclei at new record high energy

November 25, 2015

The world's most powerful accelerator, the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operating at CERN in Geneva established collisions between lead nuclei, this morning, at the highest energies ever. The LHC has been colliding ...

New gene map reveals cancer's Achilles heel

November 25, 2015

Scientists have mapped out the genes that keep our cells alive, creating a long-awaited foothold for understanding how our genome works and which genes are crucial in disease like cancer.

Study suggests fish can experience 'emotional fever'

November 25, 2015

(—A small team of researchers from the U.K. and Spain has found via lab study that at least one type of fish is capable of experiencing 'emotional fever,' which suggests it may qualify as a sentient being. In their ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.