Editor's note: Robert Zubrin, an astronautical engineer, is president of The Mars Society and author of “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must,” recently updated and republished by Simon & Schuster.
In the opinion piece “Mars can wait. Oceans can’t,” published recently on CNN.com, Amitai Etzioni says that we should defer Mars exploration because the seas have a higher priority. While I have the highest regard for ocean exploration, the fact of the matter is that there are numerous agencies – including the U.S. Navy, the navies of other countries, academic institutions, research organizations, corporations and James Cameron personally – that are more than adequately financed and equipped to carry it out.
The idea that we need to suspend space exploration in order to provide the necessary resources to probe the oceans is categorically absurd. So let’s call it like it is: The argument that we should explore the oceans instead of space is not a call to search the seas, but simply a disingenuous way to give up our effort to reach the Red Planet.
But why should we try? There are three reasons.
Reason # 1: For the knowledge. We now know that Mars once possessed oceans in which life could have developed from chemistry. But did it? If we could discover fossils on the Martian surface, or extant life surviving in subsurface water today, it would show that the origin of life is not unique to the Earth, and thus by implication reveal a universe that is filled with life and probably intelligence as well. From the point of view of humanity learning its true place in the universe, this would be the most important scientific enlightenment since Copernicus.
Robotic probes can help out in such a search – and should be aggressively pursued – but by themselves are completely insufficient. Fossil hunting requires the ability to travel long distances through unimproved terrain, to climb steep slopes, to do heavy work and delicate work, and to exercise very subtle forms of perception and on-the-spot intuition. Astrobiological investigations require the ability to drill, sample, culture and study life drawn from Martian groundwater. All of these skills are far beyond the abilities of robotic rovers. Field paleontology and astrobiology require human explorers, real live scientists on the scene.
Reason # 2: For the challenge. Nations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. The space program itself needs challenge. Consider: Between 1961 and 1973, under the impetus of the moon race, NASA produced a rate of technological innovation several orders of magnitude greater than that it has shown since, for an average budget in real dollars only about 10% more than today ($20 billion per year in 2012 dollars then, compared with $18 billion now). Why? Because it had a goal that made its reach exceed its grasp. It is not necessary to develop anything new if you are not doing anything new. The Apollo program also strongly stimulated the economy as a whole to rates of economic growth that have not been seen since. Far from being a waste of money, forcing NASA to take on the challenge of Mars is the key to giving the nation a real technological return – and much needed economic stimulus – from its space dollar.
A humans-to-Mars program would also be an adventure challenge to every child in the country: “Learn your science, and you can become part of pioneering a new world.” In its day, the Apollo program caused a doubling of the number of American science and engineering graduates. That intellectual capital continues to benefit the nation. There will be more than 100 million kids in our nation's schools over the next 10 years. If a Mars program were to inspire just an extra 1% of them to scientific educations, the net result would be 1 million more scientists, engineers, inventors, medical researchers and doctors, making innovations that create new industries, finding new medical cures, strengthening national defense and increasing national income for decades to an extent that utterly dwarfs the expenditures of the Mars program.
Reason # 3: For the future: Mars is not just a scientific curiosity, it is a world with a surface area equal to all the continents of Earth combined, possessing all the elements that are needed to support not only life, but technological civilization. As hostile as it may seem, the only thing standing between Mars and habitability is the need to develop a certain amount of Red Planet know-how. This can and will be done by those who go there first to explore.
Mars is the New World. Someday, millions of people will live there. What language will they speak? What values and traditions will they cherish, to spread from there as humanity continues to move out into the solar system and beyond? When they look back on our time, will any of our other actions compare in value to what we do today to bring their society into being?
Today, we have the opportunity to be the founders, the parents and shapers of a new and dynamic branch of the human family, and by so doing, put our stamp upon the future. It is a privilege not to be disdained lightly.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Zubrin.