Recently, I expressed an opinion on this site in favor of a manned mission to Mars. I was met with many comments — both positive and negative — discussing this position. So I’d like to, first off, find out what your opinions on it are:
I realize that there are many other deciding factors on whether you think the answer should be yes or no, but I’d like you to pick the closest one.
For me, a combination of the first and third reasons are why I am compelled to say yes. This is important, because I freely admit that I believe the scientific merits of a manned mission to Mars are very slight. There is, at this point, nothing that humans can do over there that robots, telescopes, orbiters, etc., couldn’t do at a tiny fraction of the cost and risk.
But — and as a scientist, this is a tough admission — we have more to consider than just science. NASA was not originally a scientific organization, although it accomplished (and continues to accomplish) some great science. It was originally a military organization, and my point is that I believe the purposes of NASA projects do and should go beyond the purely scientific.
To that end, think about the Apollo program. The Soviets had landed a probe on the Moon nearly a decade before. Was it really important to have humans on it? For science, not really. But for humanity, what a step! With Neil Armstrong’s first step, we became — as far as we know — the first species in the entire Universe to travel to a world other than our own.
For the first time, dreams of space tourism and space colonization seemed a reality. 40 years later, the best thing we’ve got is the ISS, a somewhat habitable buoy in orbit. Why are we not encouraging space tourism? Why are we not ferrying civilians up to the ISS for parties? Sure, it might cost 50 billion dollars to go to Mars the first time, and maybe all the astronauts who go will die there, but there are nearly seven billion of us who’d love to someday be able to go. Great achievements require great courage, and a great reward never comes without great risk. Although I wasn’t yet alive for it, I don’t know anyone who watched the Moon landing who wasn’t living vicariously through Neil and Buzz. And most of the people I know who saw it had dreams of someone just like them being able to do it too. Although science fiction excites people’s imaginations, it pales in comparison to when the real thing catches up.
I’m not talking about warp speed or teleportation or any type of fiction; I’m talking about visiting or even living on another planet! If it were possible, wouldn’t you want a seat on that flight? (Even if only one out of a thousand people say yes, that’s millions of people who’ll go!) This is one of the greatest dreams of humanity, and we have the technology, resources, and abilities to make it happen if we choose to invest in it. If we committed to it, we could launch for it in 10 years. This has been true since the 1990s, but we’d have to commit to it. Not a return to the Moon, not requiring the invention of new technologies, just using what we’ve got right now to go to Mars. It’ll be risky, people will probably die, and the journey will likely be one-way. But the adventure is worth the risk, and the reward is worth the investment.
And although it’s a secondary reason for me, it may someday be profitable, not just through tourism but industrially, to go to Mars. Why are we not trying to identify and market Mars’ unique, untapped resources? Because yes, there are resources there. Like what? Helium, for one. Know how we get helium on Earth? We find an underground deposit of radioactive material that decays via alpha decay, producing helium. It takes millions and billions of years for these deposits to build up. We’ve already mined nearly all of it on Earth, so when we’re out, we’re out. Except that there are surely radioactive deposits on Mars, and thus the same helium mines, completely untapped. We also have reasons to believe Mars is a rich source of deuterium, a rare and expensive isotope on Earth. Who knows what else might be useful there?
So, that’s what I think. There’s really no science about it; this is a chance for humanity to make one of our dreams come true. How many opportunities do we get in our lifetimes to really make one of our dreams come true? So whenever the chance arises, you know what I’ll be pushing for. And I hope that you’ll push with me.