I recently attended the Humans to Mars Summit, which is a gathering of folks from both NASA and the private sector who are all involved in one way or another in working toward the shared goal of sending human missions to explore Mars. These people are systematically working to develop six or so difficult pieces that will need to be combined–rocket launch and booster technology to get out of the gravity well; propulsion systems for the long journey; a deep space habitat; entry, descent, landing devices; surface habitats and rovers; and an ascent vehicle to lift off the Martian surface at the end of the mission. No, none of this will be easy, given that Mars is so much farther from the Earth than the Moon is. By way of comparison, the journey to Mars will take several months, whereas the trip from Earth to the Moon takes a few days. Nonetheless, I came away with so much more optimism for the endeavor than I’ve had in years.
Something that particularly struck me were the discussions of the reasons to send people, and not just robots, to explore Mars. There was the very sensible observation that people can do more science and better science than robotic devices by virtue of the fact that we have a much better ability to select more interesting rock specimens, etc. Of course, humans will be aided by robots in performing scientific missions. As to justification for going to Mars, apart from the advancement of science, I think Andy Weir said it best. He’s the author of The Martian. After twenty five years as a computer programmer, he understood the need to have a backup. Michael Swanwick also provided an astute observation having recently returned from China. The Chinese are not spending time on justifying their own space program as they moved forward with it. For them, exploration is simply something a great nation does.
The other thing that struck me was the idea that, in terms of timing, some of the children of the presenters could be the right age to be aboard that first or second Mars landing. During one of the Q & A sessions, the question was asked as to how many of the panelists would be OK with their own children going on a mission to Mars with the expectation of a return flight. The responses were decidedly mixed. It’s something to think about, isn’t it? How many of us would want close family members to accept those risks for that reward?