Robots are exploring Mars. Should humans be next?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

NASA’s Perseverance rover landed safely on the surface of Mars last week, giving scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study the distant planet. The rover’s main missions are to seek out signs of microbial life in the martian soil and test new technologies that could benefit future space exploration.

While the success of the Perseverance is worth celebrating on its own, it has also drawn renewed attention to a goal that has fascinated space enthusiasts for more than half a century: a human mission to Mars. The task of transporting people to the red planet and keeping them alive on the surface presents a massive list of challenges, but rapidly developing technology has made the concept of sending a crewed spacecraft to Mars seem more feasible than ever before.

The Trump administration tasked NASA with returning astronauts to the moon by 2024 with the goal of establishing systems that could support a trip to Mars by 2033. As ambitious as NASA’s timeline is, it’s substantially slower than the one set by Elon Musk, who has claimed his company SpaceX could send humans to Mars as soon as 2026. The billionaire has set the ultimate goal of establishing “self-sustaining civilization” on the martian surface over the course of the next few decades.

Why there’s debate

Some experts argue that the technology needed to support a human mission to Mars — let alone a colony on the planet — is pure fantasy at this point. But there is also a related debate about whether anyone should try to send humans to Mars, even if it is possible.

Supporters of sending humans to Mars argue that the potential benefits outweigh the risks and costs. The planet, which is believed to have had oceans and an atmosphere billions of years ago, could provide extraordinary insight into the life cycle of our own planet, some argue. Mars may also provide revolutionary scientific opportunities or valuable raw materials that could dramatically improve life on Earth. In Musk’s grand vision, which is shared by others, colonies on Mars can serve as a backup for humanity, in the case Earth becomes uninhabitable someday.

The pursuit of a human mission to Mars would also require a number of technological breakthroughs that could benefit humanity, much in the way the moon race brought about a long list of innovations that help us today. Others say going to Mars is worth it simply because it would represent a spectacular human achievement even without any of the practical benefits.

Opponents of sending humans to Mars say robots are a cheaper, safer, simpler and in many ways more effective option to explore the planet. The presence of humans on Mars could even undermine our scientific pursuits there, for example by contaminating the soil with microbes that traveled with them from Earth. Others argue that the technology needed to establish civilization on Mars is so far away, it may as well be science fiction at this point. A much better pursuit, many argue, would be to pour the resources that would go into reaching Mars into helping defend Earth from climate catastrophe.

What’s next

There are a number of future robotic Mars missions in development that could build on the breakthroughs Perseverance has accomplished. Perhaps the most ambitious is a proposed plan for a rover that would be able to launch off the planet and bring samples of martian soil back to Earth for study.

Perspectives

Supporters

Mars could provide the home for a better society

“Perhaps the allure of Mars will be an opportunity to build a new kind of society. … Can a Mars settlement be a freer society than we enjoy on Earth, even considering the need for everyone to be focused on sheer survival? Maybe.” — Mark Whittington, The Hill

Mars is a way to satisfy humanity’s innate sense of adventure

“Space scientists will have their own set of justifications for the astronomical costs of their projects … which usually focus on scientific discovery, technological spin-offs, potential economic benefit and national security. But press a bit harder, and the logical justifications tend to give way to variations on ‘because it’s there.’” — Editorial, New York Times

A Mars mission wouldn’t prevent humans from saving the Earth

“It seems perfectly plausible … that the world can afford to fight climate change and explore the solar system.” — Victor Tangermann, Futurism

The pursuit of Mars would lead to major technological breakthroughs

“Exploring Mars involves overcoming countless challenges through engineering and innovation. … What we learn from the successes and failures of meeting those challenges may spark the next revolution that will make life in 2071 beyond anything we can imagine right now.” — Eric Mack, CNET

Mars is a much better opportunity for scientific exploration than the moon

“The moon’s great advantage, of course, is that it’s easier to reach and we’ve done it before. But for all the difficulties of landing on Mars and establishing a human presence there, it is clearly the superior prospect for sustainable exploration. … It could be a home for people in a way that the moon never will.” — David W. Brown, Wall Street Journal

Pursuing a Mars mission will help the U.S. reestablish itself as a world leader

“The job of the next president … is to turn the phrase ‘Make America Great’ into reality and try to regain the world reputation and leadership role that once belonged to the United States. And backing off enterprises like space exploration is not the way you do that.” — Space historian John Logsdon to Atlantic

Skeptics

The costs of sending humans to Mars outweigh the possible benefits

“Taking humans to Mars, although theoretically possible, would require an investment astronomically out of kilter with the possible benefits.” — Aerospace engineer Antonio Elias to Washington Post

Robots are a better option for exploring the planet

“Today a trained geologist on the moon can perform as well as a robotic explorer, but the future of geologic investigation of other worlds lies with highly improved versions of our Mars rovers. These explorers will deploy numerous tools to probe rocks and minerals, using a memory equal — and soon superior — to any human’s. They will traverse the lunar or Martian surface for decades, continuously learning about the topography, seismographic activity and distribution of geologic strata in bulk and in detail.” — Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees, Scientific American

A human mission could undermine our scientific pursuits on Mars

“If humans do eventually land on Mars, they would not arrive alone. They would carry with them their earthly microbes. Trillions of them. There is a real risk that some of these microbes could find their way onto the surface of Mars and, in doing so, confuse — perhaps irreversibly so — the search for Martian life. … Our presence on Mars could jeopardise one of our main reasons for being there — the search for life.” — Zahaan Bharmal, Guardian

The focus on Mars could prevent exploration of other worlds

“Enthusiasm over Mars tends to foster a feedback loop where more resources are devoted to exploring the planet, which unveils new findings that only add to the interest, causing the public and private sectors to devote more money to Mars exploration, and so forth. Mars is important to study, sure — but there are many compelling reasons to start ramping up exploration of other relatively nearby worlds.” — Neel V. Patel, MIT Technology Review

The technology is so far off that it’s not even worth debating a Mars mission

“If humans haven't even been able to head back to the moon since 1972, the odds of trying to head to a planet in another solar system is nothing more than science fiction at this point.” — Antonia Jaramillo, Florida Today

Human efforts should focus on saving the Earth

“Perhaps instead of worrying about being swallowed up by an expiring star in an impossibly distant future we might devote an equivalent amount of intellectual and political energy to avoiding climate catastrophe on this planet within the next decade or two. Just a suggestion.” — Byron Williston, Boston Review

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