Frontiers mark the line between certainty and speculation, safety and peril. If, as geologist Tim Mutch said in the mid-1970s, “there are no fundamental problems left on Earth,” where do we push on to next?
The answer, says Robert Zubrin, is Mars. Founder and president of the Mars Society, Zubrin preaches tirelessly for human exploration of the red planet. In The Case for Mars , he warns, “Without a new frontier to grow in, not only American society, but the entire global civilization based upon values of humanism, science, and progress will ultimately die.” His cause is nothing less than rejuvenating humankind’s lagging spirit.
An aeronautical engineer, Zubrin is no pie-in-the-sky fantasist. Science writer Oliver Morton dubbed his 1990 Mars Direct mission architecture “the best engineering solution to the problems of getting humans to Mars anyone had ever contrived.” Zubrin’s plan foresees an initial human expedition of three years—including five hundred days of investigation and experimentation on the dusty surface—to conclude (among other things) whether life once existed there.
Proving that there is or was life on Mars would be a discovery of awesome magnitude, one that would challenge our fundamental religious and scientific tenets. So far, we know that at one time the planet may have had the necessary preconditions for life—perhaps only microbial life, but life nonetheless. A meteorite originating on Mars and discovered in 1984 in Antarctica’s Allan Hills shows compelling evidence of microbacterial fossils. The scientific community is still debating whether these fossils represent true biological forms, but opinion leans toward a yes. Recent data from Opportunity, one of the two Mars rovers to touch down earlier this year, indicates that its landing site, Meridiani Planum, was once covered by a salty sea that was likely hospitable to life as we know it.
Yet the robots we send will not provide satisfying or conclusive answers as to the presence of Martian life. Human intuition is necessary to decide which rocks to look under, where to sink subsurface probes, which terrain best indicates traces of water. Indeed, a conclusive discovery may well elude a first mission (a fact Zubrin’s multi-expeditionary approach anticipates). Mars is a huge surface, equal to the land mass of all the Earth’s continents. Life is clearly not in abundance aboveground and will not reveal itself readily to the naked eye.
Nothing could mobilize broad support for the space program like a manned mission. As captivating as the 1997 images from the Pathfinder lander were, not to mention those from Opportunity and its companion, Spirit, it’s difficult for people to become emotionally involved in a project whose whys and wherefores are essentially incomprehensible. Unmanned missions lack the compelling quality captured by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff when he asked, “What is it … that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse?”
Why, then, haven’t we ventured already to the red planet?
“From a technological standpoint, we are better prepared today to send people to Mars than we were to send humans to the moon in 1961 when President John Kennedy issued the challenge to go there,” Zubrin says. “Scientifically, we know more about Mars than we knew about the moon.”
Politically, however, our circumstances couldn’t be more different. The drive to go to the moon began in the chest-beating of the 1950s superpower confrontation. Back then, advances into space promised strategic advantage on Earth. The Soviets’ launch of Sputnik in 1957 left the Americans spooked but determined. Kennedy insisted NASA move full-force on a moon landing program. “All over the world we’re judged by how well we do in space,” he declared. “Therefore, we’ve got to be first. That’s all there is to it.”
With political will and the financial commitment to back it, any bureaucracy can be moved to act. And act the Americans did, staying focused in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination and the election of a Republican administration, sending Neil Armstrong to take his giant leap onto the lunar surface in 1969, claiming for the United States the glory of laying man’s first extraterrestrial footprints.
Today there is no comparable head-to-head political race. It’s true that China just put its first man into orbit and has claimed an interest in landing on the moon. Even if it did so, however, it’s difficult to envision how this would spur the US on to Mars. Ironically, without the prospect of competition, the urgency of getting to Mars has been lost. Cooperation may offset costs, but it has never proven as alluring a motive as enmity.
(Political competition has sparked exploration before: Spain’s maritime rivalry with Portugal resulted in Magellan’s 1519 expedition to the Spice Islands, the first circumnavigation of the globe. Thomas Jefferson funded the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804 as a response to British acquisitiveness in the Pacific Northwest. And the “scramble for Africa” between Europe’s colonial powers compelled many expeditions into the interior of that continent.)
Today it is most likely that a sortie to Mars would be undertaken as a cooperative venture between several nations—the United States, Russia, members of the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada. President George W. Bush’s recently announced space plan for the United States calls for completion of the International Space Station by 2010, development of a Crew Exploration Vehicle to replace the aging space shuttle (which will be retired in 2010), a return to the moon by 2020, establishment of a permanent moon base and, eventually, a manned craft to make the journey to Mars.
The tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 may actually provide an impetus for more ambitious space exploration. “The Columbia disaster triggered a new paradigm in the space community,” says David Kendall, acting senior director of the Space Science Program at the Canadian Space Agency. “It called into question the validity of putting humans into orbit without sending them anywhere. Thus the realization that if there’s going to be an astronaut program, there needs to be a destination. And Mars is the destination that makes ultimate sense.”
Yet irresolute political will, financial restraint and public indifference will remain obstacles to a Mars voyage in the years to come. Future politicians will inherit Bush’s blueprint, but they have no vested interest in seeing it to fruition. Technical setbacks, failed missions and loss of life do not play out well in the political realm—and the first attempt at Mars will doubtless be fraught with danger. Life support systems, for example, must endure harsh interplanetary conditions and avoid irreparable breakdown for three years. Astronauts must be guarded against the possibility of severe radiation bursts—deadly to humans not shielded by Earth’s atmosphere. Then there is the most unpredictable danger of all: the psychological effects of working under extreme stress in a restricted space, without the possibility of escape.
“It’s hard to calculate the level of stress that will be experienced by the crew as they see the pale blue dot that is home disappear into the distance and realize it’s going to be three years before they will be back,” says Kendall. “It’s quite likely we’ll solve all the technical issues associated with going to Mars before we come to terms with the human ones.”
Like Columbus before them, writes Zubrin in The Case for Mars , “the first generation of Mars explorers will have to settle their hopes upon a more primitive set of technologies than will be available to travelers of a later era.”
I had an epiphany while reading about Mars. Most people, it seems, perceive the sky as a decorative cover over our world—and therefore as someplace off in the distance—not as an infinite space of which we are a part. Psychologically, it occurred to me, we remain to this day flat-Earthers looking up at the sky, oblivious to the fact that we are in the midst of it. That all there is separating Earth from outer space is a fifty-mile cloak of atmosphere. Earth is within outer space; thus, exploration of the universe is of no less relevant consequence than the exhaustive exploration of our own planet.
Not going to Mars would be a decision of equal magnitude to going. It would halt us in our tracks, and mark the first time in history that humankind has deliberately chosen not to explore. Through one lens, the growth of human civilization has always been a succession of leaps across frontiers: some objective, such as oceans and mountain ranges; others subjective, the mythical preserves of monsters. Early fifteenth-century legends convinced European mariners they dare not sail beyond Cape Bojador, a rather unremarkable peninsula on the west coast of Africa. Certain doom, they feared, awaited them around the bend. Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator dispatched fifteen expeditions between 1424 and 1434, all of which turned back at the Cape, thwarted by the unspeakable horrors of what might lie beyond. Finally, Gil Eannes rounded the small peninsula on his second try. He found no portent of hell, just a desolate coastline—and the world beyond. As Chris McKay, a NASA planetary scientist, put it at the Mars Society’s 2000 conference, “To understand the biology of the universe, we must roam the universe, as Darwin had to roam the Earth to learn about earthly biology.”
To stand pat would mean accepting the present limits of our knowledge of the universe. Ours would be the first generation not to build on its scientific and technological possibilities, the first perhaps to halt human advancement.
MARTIAN-STYLE FACTS (See next page)
* Preliminary evidence suggests that there is subterranean water on Mars. Preliminary evidence tends to suggest a lot of crap that isn’t true.
* There exists a movement among Mars terraformers (those who want to set up a colony on the planet) to re-establish Mars as the god of agriculture, his original role in the Roman pantheon. Other causes embraced by Mars terraformers include Michael Jackson’s brief bid for President, the establishment of an international lunar calendar and the push to make Betamax tapes an international standard.
* On Mars, the Valles Marineris canyon system is as long as the US is wide. On Earth, the Valles Marineris system is a technique for marketing Latin American pop celebrities.
* The Martian day is 37 minutes longer than Earth’s—just time enough to squeeze in another uproarious episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.
* Attention, intergalactic golf course developers! Topographic contour maps of Mars are available for $14 US from the US Geological Survey (store.usgs.gov).
* Surface temperatures on Mars range from –140°C to 20°C, and the average temperature is about –63°C. Coincidentally, Canadian astronomers are alone in steadfastly refusing to call Mars “inhospitable to life.”
* A Martian Sir Edmund Hillary would have to climb over two and a half Everests to summit Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in our solar system. Wow. *
—Victoria Taylor & Jordan Rapp