Mars has been in the news lately because of NASA’s stunning success with Perseverance but it seems like we might be missing the point of the entire enterprise. For example, why go to Mars at all? There are plenty of Earth-bound problems to solve, so why spend the enormous intellectual and economic capital required to explore space?
In 1969, when Eagle landed on the moon, the technological achievement played second fiddle to the political triumph. This was the Cold War after all, and beating the Soviets at something was the first priority. No one who watched the Olympics in those days, for example, could avoid the commies-vs.-capitalists or Free World-vs.-Iron Curtain vibe in every event.
Landing on the moon turned out to be a sensational international coup for Americans as the entire world tuned in to Armstrong’s first steps. People actually felt a sense of universal brotherhood in that moment. It was as if anything was possible, and that humanity, because of technology, had a brighter future. What people forget about that time is how quickly everyone forgot about the moon landings! By the time of Apollo XVII (the sixth and final successful moon mission) in 1972 only a fraction of the original audience was tuning in. NASA, unfortunately, made the missions seem routine. They were anything but routine, but the viewing public was bored and moved on to other things. Not to mention that Congress was getting increasingly leery of NASA’s growing budget and was eager to trim the fat from the program.
It turns out the men walking on the moon, as amazing as that was, looks in hindsight more like a stunt than anything. Neil Armstrong was my childhood hero and I don’t mean to diminish his courage and skill nor the tremendous effort thousands of people made to make his journey possible. But all that drama up there in space was more about human sentiment and social aspirations than it was about science and engineering. After all it wasn’t until the final moon flight that NASA decided to add a geologist to the crew! The science, and its applications to human needs, was secondary to the dream, to the yearnings of the people. We are a culture that venerates explorers, and spaceflight takes us to that elusive “final frontier” that the TV-show Star Trek articulated so memorably.
Even after all the challenges of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, and the continuous reminding that it is very difficult for humans to live and work in space, NASA still says stuff like this:
[Mars] could someday be a destination for survival of humankind.
Uh, no. If by “someday” they mean many decades in the future, then maybe. But anytime soon? Don’t be silly.
Mars is not, by any reasonable definition, habitable. Humans cannot live there. It is too far from the Sun and so it isn’t warm enough. In fact it gets really cold there. The atmosphere is too thin for a greenhouse effect, so Mars does not trap heat and there are very large temperature swings. The atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, so you’d have to wear breathing apparatus, and the atmospheric pressure is minuscule, so you’d have to wear a pressure suit. That would be offset a bit by the much lower gravity, but that has its own deleterious effect on the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. There are regular, planet-wide dust storms. There is no magnetosphere so you’d be constantly bombarded by cosmic rays and any human habitation would require so much shielding that you’d have to live underground. There’s not much in the way of soil, and what soil is there is toxic. Water is scarcer there than any of the most arid places on our home planet.
Now I’m all for interplanetary dreaming. I love science fiction. And I also think that the stuff we will learn about ourselves and our terrestrial abode will more than pay for the costs of these space journeys. I’m all for going into space. But I think putting humans on Mars is mostly a bad idea. We can do so much really good work with robots and remote probes and rovers and such. We, the two-legged we, don’t have to be there. The logistical challenges of sending humans to Mars would only work if they were one-way trips. Perhaps in the 22nd century or something we’ll be able to terra-form the planet and make a viable colony, but I’m not holding my breath. We are stuck here on the third rock for the foreseeable future.
Mars is one of Earth’s closest habitable neighbors.
Elon Musk is a hell of a salesman. And he’s obviously a great businessman—he has the billions to prove it. But he doesn’t know shit about space. We don’t have any “habitable neighbors!” And 140 million miles away is not exactly close. For comparison, the moon is about a quarter of a million miles away and that trip took the world’s biggest-ever rocket.
Studying Mars will enlarge our understanding of our own origins, and of our home the Earth and its many systems. The scientific and engineering achievements will lead to many advances for our civilization. But we aren’t leaving home just yet.