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Debate: Manned mission to Mars

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Is a manned mission to Mars a good idea, or are continued robotic mission best?

Background and context

A human mission to visit and land on the planet Mars has long been a subject for science fiction writers and a dream of space exploration advocates. Though various mission proposals have been put forth by multiple space agencies for such a mission, the logistical and financial obstacles are considerable, and many critics contend that such a mission would be a risky sub-optimal use of government resources.
Regardless, preliminary work for such a mission is being undertaken by NASA and the European Space Agency, with each projecting a possible attempt in the late 2020s or the 2030s. In 2006, President George Bush laid out a vision for both returning to the Moon and pushing on to Mars. Since then, debate surrounding whether to go to Mars has been very prominent. The main questions surrounding a mission to Mars include the following: Would a mission to Mars be inspirational for humankind? Should this be a major consideration? Is there scientific value in sending a manned mission to Mars? Are humans necessary for certain mission-objectives, or are robots adequate and possibly superior? Is a manned mission to Mars feasible? Are the risks tolerable? Is overcoming the risks too complicated and possibly too expensive? Are there any possible economic benefits from a mission to Mars? How much will it cost? Will the costs draw significant amounts of funding away from social services and possibly require raising taxes? Will new opportunities be created? Will it inspire a new generation of engineers? Overall, does the balance of pros and cons justify sending a manned mission to Mars?

See Wikipedia's article on the topic for more background: Manned mission to Mars


Inspiration: Would a mission to Mars provide needed inspiration to the World?


  • Mission to Mars creates needed heroes. James Cameron. "Why Go to Mars?" August 25, 1999: "Our children are raised in a world without heroes. They are led to believe that heroism consists of throwing a football the furthest, getting the most hang time during a slam dunk, or selling the most movie tickets with your looks and your boyish charm. [...] Going to Mars is not a luxury we can't afford. It's a necessity we can't afford to be without. We need this. [...] We need this, or some kind of challenge like it, to bring us together to all feel a part of something and to have heroes again."
  • A manned mission to Mars would unify humankind. Captain Alan Bean, The 77-year-old was part of the Apollo 12 mission and became the fourth man to walk on the Moon, sidedd with going to Mars instead of returning to the Moon: "We ought to gather the international community and go to Mars. I know it isn't how others feel because it is much cheaper to go back to the Moon but I would rather we went to Mars. If we did it with all those other countries it would have a tremendously unifying effect on the Earth. It would be an inspiration for all people on Earth."[1]


  • Mars Mission is unlike past exploration; no practical benefits. Gregg Eastbrook. "Why We Shouldn't Go to Mars." Time. Jan. 26, 2004: "Two centuries ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St. Louis to explore the new lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase," George W. Bush said, announcing his desire for a program to send men and women to Mars. "They made that journey in the spirit of discovery ... America has ventured forth into space for the same reasons.[...] Yet there are vital differences between Lewis and Clark's expedition and a Mars mission. First, Lewis and Clark were headed to a place amenable to life; hundreds of thousands of people were already living there. Second, Lewis and Clark were certain to discover places and things of immediate value to the new nation."
  • Inspiration is not a sufficient justification for Mars mission Gregg Eastbrook. "Why We Shouldn't Go to Mars." Time. January 26, 2004: "The thought of travel to Mars is exhilarating. Surely men and women will someday walk upon that planet, and surely they will make wondrous discoveries about geology and the history of the solar system, perhaps even about the very origin of life. Many times I have stared up at Mars in the evening sky--in the mountains, away from cities, you can almost see the red tint--and wondered what is there, or was there. [...] But the fact that a destination is tantalizing does not mean the journey makes sense, even considering the human calling to explore. And Mars as a destination for people makes absolutely no sense with current technology."

Science: Does a manned mission to Mars have scientific value?


  • Manned mission to Mars could bring medical advancements. A manned mission to Mars would provide us with a greater understanding of the human body and how it functions after long periods in space, possibly bringing medical advancements.
  • Humankind should send a manned mission to Mars to find life. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. "Why Go to Mars." 2004: "We learned in the 1960s that Mars's surface has features that, as far as we can tell, can only have been made in the presence of water: standing water, running water, deluging water. There are features that look like they're floodplains. There are riverbeds that are straight and riverbeds that meander. Combine all of this, and you consider how important water is to life on Earth, you can't help but speculate that Mars was once a really wet place, possibly even harboring life at one point. So much of what drives cosmic exploration involves the quest to learn whether or not we're alone in the Universe—as an intelligent species, or as life at all. Mars being so close compared with the rest of the cosmos—it's a slam dunk as a place you want to go visit."
  • Manned mission to Mars is necessary to reveal underground life. Glenn Zorpette. "Why Go to Mars?" Scientific American. March 2000: "Another reason why humans may have to be on site to conduct a thorough search for life stems from the fact that if any such life exists it is probably deep underground. Upcoming probes will be equipped with robotic assemblies that can bore several centimeters into rocks or dig a few meters down into the soil. But barring any discoveries at those shallow depths, researchers will have to bring up samples from hundreds of meters below the surface, maybe even one or two kilometers down, before they can declare Mars dead or alive. Drilling for samples at such depths 'most likely will require humans,' says Charles Elachi, director of the Space and Earth Sciences Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif."
  • Mars mission would inspire kids to become scientists "Why we must go to Mars." On to Mars: "The first manned landing on Mars would serve as an invitation to adventure for children around the world. There will be some 100 million kids in the U.S. schools over the next 10 years. If a Mars program were to inspire just an additional 1 percent of them to pursue scientific educations, the net result would be one million more scientists, engineers, inventors, medical researchers and doctors."


  • Many more unmanned scientific missions can be sent to Mars Because a robotic mission to Mars is so much cheaper than a manned mission, many more unmanned missions can be sent. The Mars rover missions cost about $250 million a pop. An optimistic estimate puts the cost of sending humans to Mars at $160 billion. Others think it could cost as much as a trillion dollars. That is 640 Mars rover missions. This means that a manned mission will probably obtain almost 1/600th of the scientific data, and possibly 1/600th of the scientific knowledge and progress. A manned mission, therefore, is decidedly unscientific in this regard.[2]
Gregg Eastbrook. "Why We Shouldn't Go to Mars." Time. Jan. 26, 2004: "It is interesting to note that when President Bush unveiled his proposal, he listed these recent major achievements of space exploration: pictures of the rings of Saturn and the outer planets, evidence of water on Mars and the moons of Jupiter, discovery of more than 100 planets outside our solar system and study of the soil of Mars. All these accomplishments came from automated probes or automated space telescopes. Bush's proposal, which calls for 'reprogramming' some of NASA's present budget into the Mars effort, might actually lead to a reduction in such unmanned science--the one aspect of space exploration that's working really well."
  • Robotic missions to Mars are equally effective as manned ones Jazz Shaw. "Robots Should Go Where Man Hesitates." Pajamas Media. July 20, 2009: "Robotic exploration delivers countless advantages. It is true that there will always be situations where a live human being will be able to adapt and think through situations which would leave a machine crippled in the dust. But have we done so badly with the robots currently in service? Two rovers on Mars are still trundling along, dragging disabled wheels and running on low power due to dust covered solar panels, but performing their mission years beyond initial projections. Also, unmanned missions are free of the burden of delivering air, food, water, and all of the other requirements for keeping humans alive. They weigh less, cost less, and can take all the time they need to arrive at their destination."

Risks: Are the risks of a manned mission to Mars tolerable?


  • Many astronauts are willing to assume risks of Mars Mission. Alex Kirk. The Mars Society Frequently Asked Questions. 8 April 2008: "There are many of people who, if told that they could be part of an expedition to Mars only if they abandoned all hope of returning to Earth, would jump at the chance. Thousands more would sign up for a trip where their chances of returning were only 50/50. Looking back over time, people have always been willing to risk their lives for things they care about, for great missions of exploration. More importantly, why should people who will be staying safely here on Earth deny the people who wish to take that chance the opportunity, just because the explorers might die?"
  • Solar radiation is no major danger to Mars astronauts. Radiation only becomes dangerous when absorbed in large quantities, over short periods of time. According to the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council, a dose of 100 rem causes a 1.81% increase in the likelihood of cancer in the next 30 years of a person's life. Astronauts inside a spaceship during any of the last 3 large recorded solar flares would have experienced doses of 38 rem; inside of the storm shelter - 8 rem. On the surface of Mars, which offers much radiation protection due to its atmosphere, the unshielded dose would have been 10 rem, the shielded dose 3 rem. In total, radiation doses of 52.0 and 58.4 rem taken on the missions, are well below dangerous thresholds -- even were they to come all at once. [3]


  • Risks of mission to Mars are better assumed by robots. Jazz Shaw. "Robots Should Go Where Man Hesitates." Pajamas Media. July 20, 2009: "When the Mars Polar Lander entered the Martian atmosphere in 1999, it immediately fell silent and was never heard from again. It is now believed that it crashed into the wall of a canyon, smashing on the rocks far below. It was a terrible loss in terms of technology and discovery, disappointing many, but imagine our reaction if that had been a landing craft with five astronauts on board. Some risks are still best left to our machine surrogates."
  • Willingness of astronauts to go to Mars does not justify mission. Jazz Shaw. "Robots Should Go Where Man Hesitates." Pajamas Media. July 20, 2009: "It’s not that American heroes are in short supply. The waiting list of brave, daring professionals hoping to enter the space program is massive, and many stand ready to risk their lives to advance the cause of science and push mankind past any and all boundaries. But is this really the way we wish to spend those lives?"

Feasibility: Is a manned mission to Mars feasible?


  • Artificial gravity can overcome zero-gravity on Mars mission. The problem of zero gravity during the trip to Mars is actually not a problem at all: zero-gravity conditions can be eliminated altogether during the trip, as artificial gravity can be created through the use of centrifugal force. Furthermore, we should take into account the Mir cosmonauts, Sergei Avdev spending a total of 748 days in zero-gravity over 3 missions, and Valeri Polyakov spending 438 consecutive days without gravity. There were no long term negative impact, giving us no reason to believe that zero gravity causes long-term health problems in the window of time proposed for a Mars trip. [4]
  • We can commit to a mission to Mars before knowing how. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society: "This idea that you have to know how to do it before you can commit yourself to the program is completely false. We didn't know that we could do Lewis and Clark successfully before we set them out [to explore the American West in the 1800s]."[5]
  • Committing to Mars will inspire NASA/Scientists to make it happen. "Why we must go to Mars." On to Mars: "There are additional reasons to send humans to Mars. Nations, like people, thrive on challenge; they languish without it. The space program needs a challenge. Consider these statistics: Between 1961 and 1973, with the impetus of the moon race, NASA produced technological innovations at a rate several orders of magnitude greater than that it has shown since. Even so, NASA's average budget in real dollars then was only about 20 percent more than today ($16 billion 1998 dollars compared with $13 billion). Why the enhanced productivity? Because NASA had a goal that forced its reach to exceed its grasp. Far from being a waste of money, having NASA take on the challenge of a manned mission to Mars is the key to giving the nation a real return for its space dollars."
  • Mars has a uniquely suitable environment for a manned mission. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. "Why Go to Mars." 2004: "Mars, as cold as it is, is not as oppressive an environment as almost any other place we can think of going in the Solar System. From a runaway greenhouse effect, Venus is 900 degrees Fahrenheit and would melt or vaporize most things you sent to its surface. Mercury is also very hot, being close to the Sun. So when you look at the nearby terrestrial planets, Mars is looking … just right, in spite of the challenges."


  • No way to land safely and reliably. There is no existing technology or one realizable in the foreseeable future, that can safely and reliably land a cargo of more than approximately one metric tonne to the surface of Mars. It is instructive to remember that to this point half of all attempts to survive the 'fifteen minutes of terror' to the Martian surface have ended in failure. Additionally, existing technologies cannot deliver a cargo to the surface of Mars that a human could survive uninjured, the g-forces experienced upon landing are too large. The difficulty is that Mars' thin shallow atmosphere make traditional atmospheric reentry technologies impossible for larger vehicles while at the same time making pure retrorocket technologies unworkable as well, it would be better that Mars had no atmosphere at all. Coupled to this is Mars' relatively large gravity compared to the Moon and you have a problem for which there are currently no solutions - short of a space elevator. Self assembling robots made up of smaller components are a distinct possibility for exploring the Martian surface, but that relegates humans to observing the activity from orbit. See also N. Atkinson: "The Mars Landing Approach: Getting Large Payloads to the Surface of the Red Planet" - July 17, 2007, Universe Today
  • Weight of supplies for long Mars trip is impractical. The Apollo missions crammed as much food as possible to keep the astronauts alive and it ended up that even freeze-dried food is heavy. It costs about $35,000 per pound to send things into space (non-living) which would also be incredible food costs for just one mission.
  • Craft to Mars must carry exercise, artificial-gravity equipment. Because long periods of weighlessness deteriorates astronaut's bones, a "Space Shuttle" to Mars must make room for special exercise equipment and enough extra air for this exercising. Without this equipment astronauts could be dead from underwork by the time they get to Mars in the 2-3 months it takes to get there.
  • Mission to Mars will have major communications time-lag "Going to Mars: A mission fraught with risk." Canadian Space Agency. September 3, 2008: "The 20-minute communications lag. Another difficulty is the communications lag between Earth and a spacecraft travelling to Mars. Depending on the distance between the two, it can take almost 20 minutes to send commands, and then another 20 minutes before a response is received. Scientists must react quickly when problems arise, and then wait with great patience for the response, which will arrive 40 minutes after they send the initial signal. This also means that robots and systems we send to Mars must be able to make some of their own decisions, or at least know to wait for a command if something is not right."
  • Mars Mission should be delayed until its faster, safer, cheaper. Gregg Eastbrook. "Why We Shouldn't Go to Mars." Time. Jan. 26, 2004: "Rather than spend hundreds of billions of dollars to hurl tons toward Mars using current technology, why not take a decade--or two decades, or however much time is required--researching new launch systems and advanced propulsion? If new launch systems could put weight into orbit affordably, and if advanced propulsion could speed up that long, slow transit to Mars, then the dream of stepping onto the Red Planet might become reality. Mars will still be there when the technology is ready."

Economics: Would a manned mission to Mars be economical?


  • Manned mission to Mars will stimulate the engineering industry Karen Auguston. "Why We Need a Mission to Mars." Design News. February 2, 2004: "A manned mission to Mars just might single-handedly salvage what's left of the engineering profession here in the U.S., where interest in anything involving second-order differential equations has been on the wane since the mid-1980s. [...] In 1961, I didn't hear John Kennedy describe to the nation how we were going to put a man on the moon. My mother had already put me down for nap. But in 1969, I—along with my brother and sister and tens of thousands of kids across America—was glued to the family television out on the back porch, watching Neil Armstrong make one big step for man. [...] What happened in space in that day in July 1969 captured the world's attention. And it inspired tens of thousands of kids just like me—and many of you, I'm guessing—to set their own goals to do well in school, go on to study engineering, and then go to work for NASA. [...] We didn't all achieve that last part, but tens of thousands of us born before 1969 worked hard, got into engineering school, and earned our degrees. Our numbers increased every year between 1976 and 1985. [...] Since then, the number of engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. has declined steadily every year, with the exception of 1995, when there was a small up-tick."


  • A manned mission to Mars would be too expensive "TNR Flashback: The Case For Exploring Mars." The Plank, The New Republic. July 17th, 2009: "One objection to a manned mission to Mars is that robotic craft could do the job just as well at a fraction of the cost--a compelling argument as we watch the Spirit rover successfully bound (or rather inch) over the surface of the Red Planet. On January 10, The Washington Post's editors wrote, 'The success of NASA's latest Mars venture has proved the worth of unmanned missions, while manned space flight is exorbitantly expensive.' The Los Angeles Times approvingly quoted physicist and space guru James Van Allen as saying that we could explore Mars with robots 'at far less cost and far greater quantity and quality of results.' Or, as Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, bluntly summed it up, 'There's no real rationale for a manned space program.'"
  • There is nothing attractive or economical in colonizing Mars. Sci-fi author Bruce Sterling: "I´ll believe in people setting Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert, which is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach."[6]

Public opinion: Does the public support a mission to Mars?


  • Public opinion polls favor sending a manned mission to Mars. "Poll: Americans Say U.S. Should Go To Mars." CBS News. July 20, 2009 "A slim majority of Americans believe the United States should send astronauts to Mars despite the current economic crisis, a newly-released CBS News poll finds. [...] Fifty-one percent of those surveyed back the journey to Mars. Forty-three percent opposed it. In 2004, 48 percent said the U.S. should send astronauts to Mars, while in 1999 that figure was 58 percent."


  • There is little public support for a mission to Mars "Mars beckons." Cumbrian Sky. July 21, 2009: "THE PUBLIC AREN’T INTERESTED IN SENDING PEOPLE TO MARS. There. I’ve said it. We were all thinking it, but no-one was saying it. Time to face facts. There is, at present, NO public demand – or even support – for a manned mission to Mars. They think it would be a huge amount of money spent for absolutely bugger all practical use. And until space enthusiasts and the space community, and, yes, NASA itself, can give the public a damned good reason for sending people to Mars and not just more rovers, WE ARE NOT GOING TO MARS."

Pro/con sources



See also

External links

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