Why we shouldn't wait to go to Mars
Robert Zubrin, chief of The Mars Society, says the Red Planet has everything needed to support life and technological civilization.
April 23rd, 2012
11:32 AM ET

Why we shouldn't wait to go to Mars

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.

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  1. hilarious shirts

    Check out our website for new shirts! You won't be disappointed.

    April 12, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
  2. David Scott

    I can think of lots of other reasons to go to Mars, too.

    April 7, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  3. RANDY LEGEND

    PEOPLE OF EARTH BETTER WAKE UP BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE. WHY SPEND ALL THAT MONEY TO GO TO MARS WHEN PEOPLE ARE STARVING ON EARTH AND LOTS OF PEOPLE DON'T HAVE WHERE TO LIVE. IT MAKES ME SICK TO HERE WE MIGHT GO TO MARS. EXPLORE EARTH, THIS IS WHERE WE LIVE AND BELONG!!!!!

    February 18, 2013 at 1:05 am |
    • David Scott

      Travelling to space could solve a lot of the problems we are experiencing here on Earth and may save us a a race someday. Open your mind and read the article again. I can think of many other reasons why we should go.

      April 7, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  4. Harrison

    I believe that it is impossible that there isnt life somewhere else in the universe or even this galaxy. there are billions of stars for a every person on earthin this galaxy alone, millions of those are bound to have orbiting planets, and some of those are bound to have some kind of life whether its bacteria or the "greys" there is life out there somewhere its only a matter of time before we find it. as for mars we believe that water once ran on it and thats great; but as far as we know life may not even be dependant on water in other places. for all we know there may be countless elements and compounds we are oblivious to. to sum it up there is life out there and we will find it. oh and lets start with a moon base first.

    December 10, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  5. How funny

    When people say we should build moon base in the first place rather than mars base and people say we already been there. yes be didn't try to establish a base. Now when people start to talk about mars base, they start to say, why we need to do that, if we can go to Europe and Jupiter.

    December 7, 2012 at 5:55 am |
  6. Meow Meow

    If Mars has everything needed to support life and technological civilization, then why are the guys in the picture wearing space suits?

    August 4, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  7. Mekhong Kurt

    Great article. Particularly after I recently read that a Dutch company plans to start a colony on Mars in 2023, with the Chinese set to have *permanent* colonists there by 2033 - and I do mean "permanent" since they volunteer for a one-way ticket.

    And the economic and societal benefits are tremendous, a point way to many people (especially in Congress) simply don't understand.

    June 11, 2012 at 9:01 am |
  8. tom

    A mission to Mars? yes. A national mandate like Apollo?No.Governmental funding limits how these problems are going to be solved. NASA does a lot better with robots, remote probes and satellite tracking missions all over the solar system. Post-modern manned spaceflight should be done by folks who are skilled in its ability to preform as an entrepreneurial endeavor. Because when funding dries up on a public project, you end up with memories not abilities. No business went on to produce space station, lunar landers or pressure suits for the masses following Apollo. Why? Because the Apollo program was for a moon landing, not an infrastructure for all people to go into space! It has to be somebody who is clever ^ ambitious & knows how to deliver. Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Robert Bigelow could get to Mars... because they're working on it... that's the type of mindset you need.

    May 22, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  9. jlehane3

    http://s12.photobucket.com/albums/a221/jlehane3/?albumview=slideshow Life on Mars Pics,people like us and many animals are alive NOW on Mars.Yes it's covered up because we are too stupid to be presented with the facts OR too stupid to realize it WHEN we have been lied to and DUPED since 1976.I designed the Mars rovers 1987.

    May 5, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
  10. Richard Bird

    its hard to find science from NASA unless your maybe some professor at a university. I read once that NASA doesn't do science they just build stuff. Don't get me wrong I love NASA and always will but trying to define just what NASA is anymore is not easy. It makes so much sense to me to go to the moon first than Mars later. They said there is a good chance of water on the moon as well as a lot of expensive metals,are they doing some kind of about turn? They have always said finding water was one of the first things they need. In my old age as things become a little easier to see, the moon seem to be just waiting there like a pot of gold. The possibilities seem endless, right now if you had five hundred pounds of moon rocks what could it be sold for? If that is not an incentive then there is always things like setting up some kind of base if they could make it work then people would pay millions to visit.
    I don't think China would ever give up on colonizing the moon and if they start making progress to the point of having boots on the ground then the west will surely wish they had beat them to it.

    May 5, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • jlehane3

      Justathought,here is fuel for your positive outlook,life on Mars is real with people like us and a huge variety of large and small animals that visit both recent rovers daily.The nasa images are masked.I designed the Mars rovers 1987. http://s12.photobucket.com/albums/a221/jlehane3/?albumview=slideshow Here are 1000 images of life on Mars,or Google/search IMAGES"Jerry Lehane Mars".To Richard Bird,Im sad to say the lunar astronauts have reported that we were/they were WARNED OFF the Moon in no uncertain terms by aliens with huge intimidating ships.I don't take that lightly.

      May 5, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • tom

      I agree with you about NASA not keeping up with its exploratory role... trying to keep up to go beyond 'Apollo' without the funding or support. China has a pressing need to develop Outer Space. Moving millions of its population to sustain-ably attain a post-modern culture is a goal, being 'boxed-in' by unsympathetic global powers is not on the agenda. The Moon can be 'claimed' as territory because the Chinese never sign the UN Treaty governing activities in Outer Space. I would have loved for the U.S to make outer space a place we could all travel to, but look what we do with anything that works... we become too secure & complacent.

      May 22, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  11. johnmetcalfe1932

    Instead of idiots Bush and Bliar going to war in Iraq (costing hundreds of billions of $), they should have financed a trip to Mars instead. The U.S.A needs to sort out its priorities!

    April 27, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  12. mikea

    Ok, this is going to sound crazy, but consider this – (1) mars , dead planet , huge stores of carbon dioxide underground : (2) earth , global warming , a plan to store huge stores of carbon dioxide underground ! Add to that, that the mars atmosphere is composed of mostly carbon dioxide, while we are continually pumping carbon dioxide into the air. Do you think that maybe we've done this before... and failed once before?! But at the time we had an alternate planet to colonize, but unfortunately it was still too early in earth's geological development to survive longterm. The best thing we can do for earth and humanity today is to explore the heck out of mars and possibly discover this potential link. Whether it's in person or by robotic extension doesn't really matter. Consider these other oddball thoughts – we keep looking for the missing link between early humanoids and modern man. Maybe there isn't one! We colonized and interbred is all. ver huge amounts of time, planets slowly get further from the sun. Maybe at one time mars was closer in and had it's own somewhat earthlike environment and life evolution. And what ever you can believe on google, there's references in ancient texts on early civilizations with what sounds today like higher technology than we give very early man credit for (things that sound like electricity, ability to fly, high density farming – just the things you might be able to continue briefly from remote colonization. It sounds crazy, but it just seems to add up...

    April 25, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • jlehane3

      Try to realize that now and before you were born and after you die are all times when humanoids live on Mars....Millions of them.Now,what were you saying?

      April 25, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
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