Human Exploration of Mars is a hot topic these days. The National Geographic Channel’s “Mars” miniseries mixes science fiction with matter-of-fact interviews with the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to describe how we would do a human-exploration mission.
Musk, who says he started SpaceX in order to colonize Mars, drew worldwide attention when he unveiled an ambitious mission architecture at the International Astronautical Conference in September.
And the fictional rescue of astronaut Mark Watney in last year’s hit “The Martian” engaged movie audiences much as did director Ron Howard’s 1995 dramatization of the 1970 real-life rescue of Lovell and his “Apollo 13” crew. But to get there we have to take that initial step of having a first human mission to Mars.
With the impending change in U.S. presidential administrations, we have the ability to send NASA on a revitalized course of human Mars exploration. This isn’t something that is infinitely far into the future — we have the technology and the knowledge today to do a human Mars mission. From 16 years of living on the International Space Station, we know how to live and work in space for the time necessary to do a round-trip Mars mission. And we have the technical capability to design and implement a real Mars mission.
The first human Mars mission will not be a long-term exploration of the surface by astronauts. That would be too risky, because it would require development of too many new components, especially the difficult task of getting down to the surface and back up again. We need to build up toward that with steps along the way that demonstrate the capabilities necessary for doing a full Mars-exploration mission. This is how we did Apollo to the moon in the 1960s — humans in Earth orbit, flyby mission around the moon, demonstrate the lunar lander in Earth orbit then in lunar orbit, then finally land on the surface.
We have that ability to start a mission to Mars now. As soon as a decade from now we could successfully send astronauts on a Mars flyby mission, or to go into orbit around it and then return to Earth. That would be a tremendous achievement by itself, and it would be a necessary stepping stone toward long-term human exploration. Plus, it would give us time to develop the capability to get down to the surface so that we could follow that first human mission with surface exploration.
Most importantly, it’s something that we can really start today, with the result being having people at Mars soon enough as to make it real.
Exploring Mars may not sound like one of the most pressing problems in our society today. However, questions about whether there is life on Mars or elsewhere in our solar system, whether there is life on any of the planets that have been discovered around other planets, and what makes a planet habitable are important scientific and philosophical questions. And, exploring the universe around us, and understanding how we as individuals, as a species, and as a planetary ecosystem relate to the planet, the solar system, and the universe around us are central to how we view ourselves in our world.
Collectively, we have both the need and the desire to explore the universe around us. And, we have the ability to take a bold step and begin that exploration now in earnest by starting a human mission to Mars. Let’s take that step.
Bruce Jakosky is a professor in planetary sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and is the principal investigator of the MAVEN spacecraft mission that currently is orbiting Mars.