The summit, which is happening from May 5 through 7, features discussions about current and future NASA efforts on the journey to Mars.
So, why does Mars matter to Bolden? Several reasons. Here are a few of the ones he mentioned on Tuesday:
- “Because its formulation and evolution are comparable to Earth’s”
- “Because we know that at one time it had conditions suitable for life”
- “Because what we learn about the Red Planet may tell us more about our own home planet’s history and future”
- “Because it might just help us unravel the age-old mystery about whether life exists beyond Earth”
Bolden isn’t the only one who thinks Mars matters.
Some of the most innovative, intelligent, outspoken minds of our age — Buzz Aldrin, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson — have similar ideas on why humans not only need to visit the Red Planet but to colonize it as well.
Here are five of the main reasons they cite:
1. Ensuring the survival of our species
The only home humans have ever known is Earth. But history shows that surviving as a species on this tiny blue dot in the vacuum of space is tough and by no means guaranteed.
The dinosaurs are a classic example: They roamed the planet for 165 million years, but the only trace of them today are their fossilized remains. A colossal asteroid wiped them out.
Putting humans on more than one planet would better ensure our existence thousands if not millions of years from now.
“Humans need to be a multiplanet species,” Musk recently told astronomer and Slate science blogger Phil Plait. Musk founded the space transport company SpaceX to help make this happen.
Mars is an ideal target because it has a day about the same length as Earth’s and water ice on its surface. Moreover, it’s the best available option: Venus and Mercury are too hot, and the Moon has no atmosphere to protect residents from destructive meteor impacts.
2. Discovering life on Mars
Nye, the CEO of The Planetary Society, said during an episode of StarTalk Radio in March that humanity should focus on sending humans instead of robots to Mars because humans could make discoveries 10,000 times as fast as the best spacecraft explorers we have today. Though he was hesitant to say humans should live on Mars, he agreed there were many more discoveries to be made there.
One monumental discovery scientists could make is determining whether life currently exists on Mars. If we’re going to do that, we’ll most likely have to dig much deeper than NASA’s rovers can. The theory there is that life was spawned not from the swamps on adolescent Earth, but from watery chasms on Mars.
The Mars life theory suggests that rocks rich with microorganisms could have been ejected off the planet’s surface from a powerful impact, eventually making their way through space to Earth. It’s not a stretch to imagine, because Martian rocks can be found on Earth. None of those, however, have shown signs of life.
“You cannot rule out the fact that a Mars rock with life in it landing on the Earth kicked off terrestrial life, and you can only really test that by finding life on Mars,” Christopher Impey, a British astronomer and author of over a dozen books in astronomy and popular science, told Business Insider.
3. Improving the quality of life on Earth
“Only by pushing mankind to its limits, to the bottoms of the ocean and into space, will we make discoveries in science and technology that can be adapted to improve life on Earth.”
British doctor Alexander Kumar wrote that in a 2012 article for BBC News where he explored the pros and cons of sending humans to Mars.
At the time, Kumar was living in the most Mars-like place on Earth, Antarctica, to test how he adapted to the extreme conditions both physiologically and psychologically. To better understand his poignant remark, let’s look at an example:
During its first three years in space, NASA’s prized Hubble Space Telescope snapped blurry pictures because of a flaw in its engineering. The problem was fixed in 1993, but to try to make use of the blurry images during those initial years, astronomers developed a computer algorithm to better extract information from the images.
It turns out the algorithm was eventually shared with a medical doctor who applied it to the X-ray images he was taking to detect breast cancer. The algorithm did a better job at detecting early stages of breast cancer than the conventional method, which at the time was the naked eye.
“You can’t script that. That happens all the time — this cross pollination of fields, innovation in one, stimulating revolutionary changes in another,” Tyson, the StarTalk radio host, explained during an interview with Fareed Zakaria in 2012.
It’s impossible to predict how cutting-edge technologies used to develop manned missions to Mars and habitats on Mars will benefit other fields like medicine or agriculture. But we’ll figure that out only by “pushing humankind to its limits” and boldy going where we’ve never been before.
4. Growing as a species
Another reason we should go to Mars, according to Tyson, is to inspire the next generation of space explorers. When asked in 2013 whether we should go to Mars, he answered:
“Yes, if it galvanizes an entire generation of students in the educational pipeline to want to become scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians,” he said. “The next generation of astronauts to land on Mars are in middle school now.”
Humanity’s aspirations to explore space are what drive us toward more advanced technological innovations that will undoubtedly benefit mankind in one way or another.
“Space is like a proxy for a lot of what else goes on in society, including your urge to innovate,” Tyson said during his interview with Zakaria. He added: “There’s nothing that drives ambitions the way NASA does.”
5. Demonstrating political and economic leadership
At a February 24 hearing, Aldrin told the US Senate’s Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness that getting to Mars was a necessity not only for science, but also for policy.
“In my opinion, there is no more convincing way to demonstrate American leadership for the remainder of this century than to commit to a permanent presence on Mars,” he said.
If Americans do not go to Mars, someone else will. And that spells political and economic benefit for whoever succeeds.
“If you lose your space edge,” Tyson said during his interview with Zakaria, “my deep concern is that you lose everything else about society that enables you to compete economically.”
With NASA making significant efforts to send American astronauts to Mars by the 2030s — a goal that President Obama set five years ago — Bolden had encouraging words:
“It is my firm belief that we are closer to getting there today than we’ve ever been before in the history of human civilisation.”
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