OPINION: Why we need a human mission to Mars

June 16, 2017 by Malcolm Walter, The Conversation
A view from the ‘Kimberley’ formation on Mars taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover. The strata in the foreground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp, indicating flow of water toward a basin that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

If we want to know whether there is life beyond Earth then the quickest way to answer that question is to explore Mars. That exploration is currently being done by remote space probes sent from Earth.

The race is on though to send human explorers to Mars and a number of Earth-bound projects are trying to learn what would be like on the red planet.

But the notion of any one-way human mission to Mars is nonsensical, as is the thought that we should colonise Mars simply because we are making a mess of Earth.

The first suggestion is pointless and unethical – we would be sending astronauts to their certain death – while the second would be a licence for us to continue polluting our home planet.

I believe we should go to Mars because of what we can learn from the red planet, and from developing the technologies to get people there safely.

The SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk last September outlined his vision for a mission to send people to Mars by 2022. But first he is planning to send people around the Moon.

I think Musk will send two space tourists around the Moon and back to Earth, not in 2018 as he has predicted, but probably within a decade. He has not yet experimented with having passengers aboard a rocket.

The red planet Mars. Credit: NASA

Our journey into space

It's worth looking at how we got to where we are now in terms of humans in space and space exploration.

The first footprint on another world was made by US astronaut Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969 (US time) when he left the Eagle lunar lander and stepped onto the Moon.

The Moon is as far as humans have explored in space but we've sent probes to explore the other planets in our Solar system, including Mars.

Several failed attempts were made to send a probe to Mars but the US Mariner 4 was the first to successfully photograph another planet from space when it made a flyby of Mars in July 1965.

The USSR's Mars 2 orbited Mars for three months in 1971 but its lander module crashed onto the planet. The lander of the Mars 3 mission also failed.

NASA's Viking 1 performed the first successful landing on Mars, on July 20, 1976, followed by Viking 2 on September 3, 1976.

The Viking missions were the first to search for life on that planet, since when others such as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed days apart in January 2004, have looked to see if Mars could have had life in the past.

No evidence of life has been found so far, but the techniques available now are far more advanced and we know much more about the planet. We do have abundant evidence of water on Mars.

The dunes of Mars as seen by Viking 1. Credit: NASA/JPL

The benefits of space exploration

Apart from looking for life, why bother with a mission to send humans to Mars? Many aspects of our modern lives would not be possible if it were not for our interest in space.

We rely on satellites for communication, timing and positioning. Satellites help to keep us safe from severe weather, especially in Australia.

The Apollo and other NASA missions led to developments in micro-electronincs that later made it into household devices such as calculators and home computers.

NASA has detailed many of the spinoffs it says stem from its research for exploration of space, which even include the dustbuster.

Intangible, but critical nonetheless, is the inspiration we derive from . It can be very significant in attracting young people to science and engineering, something needed more and more as our economies continue to transition to an ever higher-tech future.

In the US there was a large spike in tertiary enrolments in science and engineering during the Apollo missions to the Moon.

A new space race

We are using more and more sophisticated craft to explore Mars. It is a broadly international venture involving NASA, the European Space Agency (22 member nations), the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation, the China National Space Administration, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

This animation shows how the surface of Mars might have appeared billions of years ago.

We are witnessing not only collaboration but competition. Which nation (or company?) will first return to the Moon and then land astronauts on Mars? It is beginning to look like a new race.

Why focus on Mars? We already know that early in its history, more than three billion years ago, Mars had a surface environment much like that of Earth at the same time, featuring volcanoes, lakes, hot springs, and perhaps even an ocean in the northern hemisphere.

Life on Earth then was microbial, the evidence for which is preserved in 3.5 billion year old rocks in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

So we are searching for microbes on Mars. Despite being microscopic, bacteria and their cousins the Archaea are complex organisms. Methane already discovered in the atmosphere of Mars hints at the presence of such life but is not definitive.

If there ever was life on Mars it may still be there, underground where it will be protected from cosmic and ultraviolet radiation. From time to time it might emerge on the surface in some of the gullies that seem to result from the breaching of underground aquifers.

It might not seem exciting to discover former or living microbes, but if we can demonstrate that they represent an independent origin of life the consequences will be profound.

We will be able to predict confidently that there will be life all over the universe. Somewhere out there will be intelligent beings. What might happen then currently lies in the realm of science fiction.

The future lies in more missions to Mars. So far all missions have been one-way and robotic, but plans are underway for a mission to return samples from Mars, and sometime this century there will be astronauts on Mars, not in "colonies" but in research bases like those in Antarctica. It is inevitable.

Explore further: Mars missions: Past, Present and Future

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eljo
4 / 5 (4) Jun 16, 2017
There is nothing nonsensical or unethical about sending humans to Mars on a one way mission. A moot point since tech. to return already exists. I would go myself and know for a fact that the life support tech. exists to make this a workable scheme. The idea that you face a certain death is not based in science; shielding against cosmic radiation and UV with a couple of meters of dirt and water is easy thing to do. It doesn't require high tech, it requires a shovel.

I don't see how any Mars colonization scheme is a licence for polluting Earth.
Mark Thomas
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 16, 2017
If we never reach Mars, it is a good bet we will never reach any of the other ~trillion planets in the Milky Way galaxy either. As Elon Musk has pointed out, this will eventually lead to our demise.

On the other hand, a future human society that has risen to the challenge and thoroughly explored the solar system is far more likely to be the one to finally reach for the stars. As a Star Trek fan, it is painfully obvious to me that we are currently incapable of building a USS Enterprise. However, perhaps we can build the society that does. If there is even the tiniest chance not exploring might be fatal and/or exploring might lead to us to better things, we would be wise to pursue the exploration of space as far as we are able.
Colbourne
3 / 5 (2) Jun 16, 2017
One-way missions make a lot of sense and will probably offer the astronauts a longer life expectancy than attempting to return to Earth on an unproven spaceship launched from an understaffed and undeveloped Mars base. They also remove the extra radiation dose experienced by the second trip. The massive savings in not having to build a refueling plant and return spaceship can allow a much better Mars base to built.
Eventually a return craft may be available after the Mars base has been developed so these early pioneers can return home if they wish to a heroes welcome.
When humans colonized the Earth many trips were one-way. Everyone dies eventually and having been the first people on Mars should be reward enough for many people.
Anda
5 / 5 (2) Jun 17, 2017
Funny that everyone talks about the trip's radiation but few comment the radiation on Mars.
Luckily @eijo has a solution... stay always underground...
guptm
1.5 / 5 (8) Jun 17, 2017
Humans cannot survive anywhere else except the Earth. We are STRICTLY earthlings - evolved on Earth, adapted to earth's gravity, biology, physics, etc. Even if someone settles on Mars, they won't survive long enough. But, exploration is always good. We should try to find other forms of existence other than that found on Earth. Believe it or not!
Bart_A
1.7 / 5 (6) Jun 17, 2017
So the author's point is that we should go to Mars to look for life. Spend billions, or more probably trillions, to continue to what others have fruitlessly done. What a waste of resources!

No, we don't "need" a human mission to Mars.

TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (2) Jun 17, 2017
"The first suggestion is pointless and unethical – we would be sending astronauts to their certain death"

Thats up to the astronauts where they want to die. Lots of people would prefer to die on mars.Or even arizona.
Humans cannot survive anywhere else except the Earth. We are STRICTLY earthlings
Humans live for extended periods underground, in submarines, in orbit. We spend most of our lives inside buildings.

Completely self-sufficient habitats can be created beneath the surface of mars which would be indistinguishable from the artificial environments we create for ourselves here.

There is nothing unique about HERE.
What a waste of resources
And unfortunately we cant pray for your god to protect us here indefinitely. In order to ensure the future of life we need to spread it around.

We need to protect god as well. After all what would happen to him if everybody who believed in him were dead?

This makes the responsibility all the more awsomer.
vazonosito
5 / 5 (1) Jun 17, 2017
Could anybody mention a task, measuring or examination, what robots cannot fulfill but human can perform? It would be a real surprise to find one.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (2) Jun 17, 2017
Could anybody mention a task, measuring or examination, what robots cannot fulfill but human can perform? It would be a real surprise to find one.
Pray?
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Jun 17, 2017
Hey bart theres something which I find suspicious. Humans have had a number of successive goals which required maximal effort to achieve but were not impossible to achieve. First it was crossing the desert to leave africa. Arduous but not impossible. Next was crossing beringia to get to the western hemisphere.

Then it was sailing across the atlantic to do the same thing. The geography of this planet ensured that we needed to develop tech at just the limits of our capabilities to achieve these things.

Now our next great exodus will be to a planet just far enough away, and just dissimilar enough, to make getting there difficult but not impossible.

One can imagine a planet where there were no distant continents worth going to, or a solar system with planets that werent worth the effort to colonize.

Our environment seems anthropomorphically optimized to ensure our progress. Is jehovah responsible for this?

Nah-
eljo
5 / 5 (1) Jun 17, 2017
Anda, why would you stay underground? The 5 to ten percent rise in a presumed chance of getting radiation induced cancer is measured over a thousand day period without any shielding. There are plenty of ways to reduce that exposure to zero for most of the duration of such a mission, even the rovers can be equipped with adequate shielding with plain water or ice.
The crew on the outward leg is fully protected by the mass of the return trip fuel and cargo and the largest exposure actually would happen during the return leg, unless we go forward with in orbit refueling at Mars, which is becoming part of most proposed architectures.

You don't need humans, but humans want to go. And that is good enough a reason to go. It is certainly not a waste of resources. Good science can be included along the way. Mars doesn't need to be a sterile reserve. Compress the atmosphere locally and you can build some nice self sustaining bases.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2017
Why do we need humans on Mars...well, the obvious answer (to me) is: just because.
We cab't stay forever on this rock. We need - as a species - to get our feet into deeper water if we want to survive in the long run. The sooner the better.

And by this I don't mean that colonies on Mars or somesuch make particularly a lot of sense (they don't). but we need to trial the technologies we'll need to get (seriously) into space:
- self sustaining ecologies
- self repairing systems
- non-chemical drives
- manufacture of...everything from very basic materials (an ability that will be no end of a blessing on Earth, too)

And Mars just seems like the next logical (i.e. 'easy') step after orbit and the Moon. And it definitely should be a mission with a return option.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Jun 18, 2017
Aa thinks that living in bottles and cans and zip lock bags in orbit is preferable to living on an actual planet. And how can even O'Neill cylinders and Stanford torii be self-sustaining?

Cheap space and raw materials only exist on planets. Space is for machines.
Edenlegaia
not rated yet Jun 18, 2017
Aa thinks that living in bottles and cans and zip lock bags in orbit is preferable to living on an actual planet. And how can even O'Neill cylinders and Stanford torii be self-sustaining?

Cheap space and raw materials only exist on planets. Space is for machines.


While nothing beats living on a planet for some reasons (Space debris will hardly make a planet explode. If it surprises a space colony, the drama will occur.), having space colonies would be nice to use the vast space we have between planets. Materials and energy wouldn't be that hard to gather if we can construct them in the first place.
What's more, while we don't know yet how much time we'll need to find faster way to travel, we're more likely to need various and numerous places to inhabit before it occurs. Our solar system may not be enough in case of growth without conflicts.
And space colonies are cool.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jun 18, 2017

While nothing beats living on a planet for some reasons

I dunno. You can't fudge gravity on a planet. In a space station we could at least grow up healthy. On Mars that's not a given. Osteoporosis will be an issue for everyone...and I don't want to know how this will affect babies whom we can't really treat with the same methods as adults to mitigate some of the effects.

As for materials: If we figure out how to reuse stuff 100% (even if it means throwing gobs of energy at it) then we're golden. Energy is there for the taking in space in the form of solar (or fusion for those far-way places, once we get it to work)
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jun 18, 2017
Space debris will hardly make a planet explode

It doesn't make space stations explode, either. A station (or ship) that is supposed to be inhabited for a significant amount of time will habe to have thick walls to protect from radiation. One layer could be a self-sealing material like this:
https://www.extre...a-second

The best of both worlds will probably to find a suitable asteroid, Dig in and spin it up. (Or better yet: several small ones and link them up). However this will need a serious power source (fusion) to shoot off excavated material in order to get rotation speed up.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jun 18, 2017
We already have a serious power source - the 8000 tons of fissiles lying about just waiting to be used. Or would you prefer we keep them all here?
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Jun 19, 2017
Could anybody mention a task, measuring or examination, what robots cannot fulfill but human can perform? It would be a real surprise to find one.


Expanding human presence in space. We will continue to learn and grow as we do this ourselves. There is a lot more going on here than simply measuring or examining.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Jun 19, 2017
I don't see how any Mars colonization scheme is a licence for polluting Earth.


I agree, in fact I believe the exact opposition is true. Terraforming Mars promises to be a monumental struggle. Perhaps we will gain an appreciation for how wonderful and fragile Earth is when we realize just how hard it is to make another.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jun 19, 2017
Terraforming Mars promises to be a monumental struggle. Perhaps we will gain an appreciation for how wonderful and fragile Earth is when we realize just how hard it is to make another.
We don't need to terraform it. We can live just under the surface with all the comforts we experience here.

A self-sustaining colony in perpetuity needn't have more than a few million inhabitants. We want to drastically reduce pops here in order to save the planet; mars is our chance to establish societies that are fully capable of living within their means.

Re gravity, people will have to labor to sustain the colony. Exercise can provide the remainder. I suppose weighted clothes can provide most of the needed resistance. Drug therapy and genetic engineering will fix the remainder. Eventually we'll adapt.

Musk says we'll have 1 million people there in a gen. I'm sure he knows more about the risks and hurdles than anyone here.

And note he's not talking about orbital habitats.
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Jun 29, 2017
We don't need to terraform it.


But how wonderful would it be if we did? Just imagine being able to breathe the air and build a society on the surface with our best thinking. All the complaints about space exploration in general, and going to Mars in particular, would vanish at that point because we would have found an eminently practical application, i.e., world building.

This would give humanity an entirely new perspective. We would be looking at many planets around nearby stars very differently having a successfully terraformed Mars under our belts. The reasons for interstellar travel would go from esoteric at best to the general public to clear and convincing, i.e., there are useful worlds just waiting for us. By that point we should have reasonably well-defined images, relevant data and exact locations for these worlds, plus working strategies for terraforming them. If FTL is ever possible, it is at this point a clear case can be made for developing it.

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