After hearing about the pros, cons, and challenges of sending people to Mars, most of the audience who attended “National Geographic: Mankind to Mars” at Benaroya Hall Monday evening decided that such an effort would be worthwhile. A significantly smaller percentage of attendees would be willing to make the trip themselves.
The straw poll by applause came after a panel discussion moderated by Andrew Fazekas, also known as The Night Sky Guy, a space journalist who writes a column for National Geographic and who is the author of Star Trek; The Official Guide to Our Universe: The True Science Behind the Starship Voyages (National Geographic, 2016). The other panelists were Jedidah Isler, an astrophysicist from Vanderbilt University, and Ray Arvidson, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis who has had a hand in Mars missions going back to Viking in the 1970s and is the deputy principal investigator for the Mars rover Opportunity mission.
Fazekas said he got interested in space when he was a little kid and his father showed him Mars through a telescope.
“Mars has always been particularly fascinating to humankind because it’s our nearest neighbor,” Fazekas said, “a neighboring world that beckons us.”
The presentation made liberal use of video clips and images from the Mars miniseries aired by the National Geographic Channel last fall. The panelists covered a wide range of topics, including the history of Mars, its past possible habitability, research by rovers and orbiters at Mars and by people on Earth, rocket and spacecraft design, private space ventures, and the possible setup for a human outpost on Mars.
They also discussed a litany of challenges to making a successful human mission to Mars happen, including getting there and landing safely, radiation, dust, fuel and power, agriculture on Mars, and a host of threats to human physical, mental, and emotional health.
Isler said she’s interested in the “socio-technological” aspects of a human mission to Mars, and thinks interest is building because we keep learning.
“It seems like a good amount of information is there, we’ve got a lot of poepole interested in it,” she noted. “I think it’s just a good time because we’ve got all the right pieces, or many of them.”
There’s also important science to be done, Arvidson said.
“What we’re looking at on Mars is the record in the rocks that’s long lost on Earth,” he said. “It’s the first billion years of geologic time. Earth is very active; Mars was active early but then kind of slowed down, so the rock record is still preserved. That’s the period of time when life got started and evolved on Earth. It may have also gotten started and evolved on Mars.”
Where to land
Scientists are debating right now about possible human landing sites on Mars, and dozens of them have been proposed by people with varying scientific interests. Arvidson said it will take many years to whittle those down and make a choice. The target spot will have to be one that is safe to land on, away from the poles and at low elevation so it is not too cold, and will need to offer a balance between science, safety, and sustainability.
“Wherever we go, there are lots of questions about early Mars and habitability and life,” Arvidson said. “I think the first human expedition site will be a science station, most likely, for detailed exploration between humans and robotic systems.”
Isler said that machines will do a lot of work, but that people are essential for the ultimate success of a Mars mission.
“Robots are beneficial, but they are limited,” she said. “You will always want, I argue, the dynamism, the spontaneity of human beings.”
When shall we start packing?
“Depending on what we want to do, nationallly and internationally, where the finances are, and what the reasons are and the justification, we can do this in the next few decades,” Arvidson said, speculating that we’ll arrive on Mars in the 2040s. Isler thinks it will take longer than that to figure out the human factors involved.
“The rumor on the street is that we’re always 20 years from Mars,” she quipped.
The panel speculated about an “Armstrong moment” on the day that a person from Earth sets foot on Mars for the first time. Isler said it will be a “moment where people will be be super connected with the fact that we as a species have now moved ourselves to this place successfully.”
But she added that we need to be careful how we talk about the endeavor, as huge numbers of people have been thinking about and working on getting humans to Mars for years.
“We have to do a better job this time around of implying and also asserting that it wasn’t just one person, this was not rugged individualism,” Isler said. “This is a team effort.”
She also thinks it will go a bit differently than Neil Armstrong’s line after stepping onto the Moon.
“When the first Mars explorer steps off she might Snapchat,” she laughed.
Fazekas seemed most optimistic about the timeline.
“If we put all of these components together—the technology, the science, the engineering, the willpower, understanding the challenges—we may one day all have a chance to become a tourist on Mars,” Fazekas said.
Further reading and viewing: