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Mars Debate: Should U.S. Green-Light Manned Mission To Red Planet?

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NASA/Pat Rawlings
NASA/Pat Rawlings

When it comes to Mars exploration, the U.S. has been there, done that—with robotic rovers. But while many proposals have been put forth for sending astronauts to the Red Planet, none has gotten the green light.


That’s fine with Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts congressman—he’s been an outspoken critic of plans to send astronauts to Mars. But others—including Dr. Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society and the author of "The Case For Mars: The Plan To Settle The Red Planet And Why We Must"—say the time has come for humans to make their way to our planetary neighbor.

What’s your position? Before you pick a side, have a look at what Frank and Zubrin have to say in our online debate. Then decide whose case is more persuasive, and cast your vote…


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The U.S. Should Send A Manned Mission To Mars

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Who makes the better argument?

Dr. Robert Zubrin President, The Mars Society

America's human spaceflight program is now adrift. The space shuttle has made its final flight, and the Obama administration has no coherent plan as to what to do next. Instead, it has proposed that the United States waste the next decade spending 0 billion to support a goalless human spaceflight effort that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing. In a deeply mistaken move, the administration has even cancelled NASA plans for this decade's robotic probes to Mars, thus derailing the agency's most productive program. In the face of a mounting imperative to find ways to cut the federal deficit, this has set up the nation's space program for the ax.

In order for NASA's exploration effort to make any progress, it needs a concrete goal, and one that is really worth pursuing. That goal should be sending humans to Mars.

As a result of a string of successful probes sent to the Red Planet over the past 15 years, we now know for certain that Mars was once a warm and wet planet, and continued to have an active hydrosphere for a period on the order of a billion years -- a span five times as long as the time it took for life to appear on Earth after there was liquid water here. Thus, if the theory is correct that life is a natural phenomenon emerging from chemistry wherever there is liquid water, various minerals, and a sufficient period of time, then life must have appeared on Mars.

If we go to Mars and find fossils of past life on its surface, we will have good reason to believe that we are not alone in the universe. If we send human explorers, who can erect drilling rigs which can reach underground water where Martian life may yet persist, we will be able to examine it. By doing so, we can determine whether life on Earth is the pattern for all life everywhere, or alternatively, whether we are simply one esoteric example of a far vaster and more interesting tapestry. These things are truly worth finding out.

Furthermore Mars is a bracing positive challenge that our society needs. Nations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. A humans-to-Mars program would be an invitation to adventure to every young person in the country, sending out the powerful clarion call: "Learn your science and you can take part in pioneering a new world." In return for such a challenge we would get millions of young scientists, engineers, inventors, and medical researchers, making technological innovations that create new industries, find new cures, strengthen national defense, and increase national income to an extent that utterly dwarfs the expenditures of the Mars program.

But the most important reason to go to Mars is the doorway it opens to the future. Uniquely among the extraterrestrial bodies of the inner solar system, Mars is endowed with all the resources needed to support not only life but the development of a technological civilization. For our generation and those that will follow, Mars is the New World. We should not shun its challenge.

We're ready. Despite its greater distance, we are much better prepared today to send humans to Mars than we were to send men to the Moon in 1961, when President Kennedy started the Apollo program- and we were there eight years later. Future-fantasy spaceships are not needed to send humans to Mars. The primary real requirement is a heavy lift booster with a capability similar to the Saturn V launch vehicle employed in the 1960s. This is something we fully understand how to create.

The mission could then be accomplished with two launches. The first would send an unfueled and unmanned Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) to Mars. After landing, this vehicle would manufacture its own methane/oxygen return propellant by combining a small amount of hydrogen imported from Earth with a large supply of carbon dioxide acquired from the Martian atmosphere. The chemistry required to perform this operation has been widely practiced on Earth since the gaslight era.

Once the propellant is manufactured, the crew is sent to Mars in a habitation module launched by the second booster. The hab module is landed near the ERV and used for a year and a half as the crew's base for exploring the Martian surface, after which the crew enters the return vehicle and flies home. The hab module is left behind on Mars, so each time a mission is flown, another habitation is added to the base. There is nothing required by such a plan that is beyond our technology.

The issue is not money. The issue is leadership. NASA's average Apollo-era (1961-73) budget, adjusted for inflation, was about billion a year in today's dollars, only 5 percent more than the agency's current budget. Yet, the NASA of the '60s accomplished a hundred times more because it had a mission with a deadline, and was forced to develop an efficient plan to achieve that mission. If NASA were given that kind of direction, we could have humans on Mars within a decade. If not, we may soon have no human spaceflight program at all.

The American people want and deserve a space program that really is going somewhere. It's time they got one.

Rep. Barney Frank Chairman, Financial Services Committee

Two alternative formulations about how to make public policy decisions present themselves to me in analyzing whether or not America should commit the enormous amount of money it will take to launch a manned trip to Mars. One comes from the discipline of economics; the other from the patter of one of our great comedians of the '40s, '50s, '60s. The economists give us the concept of opportunity costs -- of the reality that any decision you make in a universe of limited resources to use some of the resources for a particular objective has two aspects: first, what you can achieve; second, all the things you cannot achieve because you have put those limited resources to the first objective.

Henny Youngman's way of putting it was, characteristically of him, terse, funny and wise: "How's your wife?" he asked himself in his rapid pattern. "Compared to what?" he answered.

Thus in two ways the case against committing hundreds of billions? trillions? -- to sending human beings to Mars and back.

The question is not whether America as a society can afford it. It is whether the America of today, with a very large public debt that needs to be reduced -- although not immediately because that would damage our economic recovery efforts -- and very difficult decisions to be made about how much of our national wealth is to be committed to other national priorities, can afford to spend a very large chunk of money over the next several years on a project that is justified more in philosophical and even spiritual terms than scientifically.

I very much favor and have voted for funds for the scientific exploration of Mars, as part of a space program dedicated to the advancement of science. But the addition of human beings to the program adds astronomically to the expense, with very little compensation in scientific knowledge. The arguments for manned space travel have always involved notions of both building national character and of exhibiting our strengths, although during the Cold War period, there was clearly an element of military competition as well. I understand that many will feel a great deal of pride in sending human beings to Mars and back. But if we do that, given the current severe fiscal constraints facing the federal government -- I do not see on the horizon the political will to raise taxes in anything like the amount that we would need to offset such a project -- we will send human beings to Mars only at the expense of improving the quality of our life here at home, and providing for those who are greatly in need.

Medicare and Social Security are already under assault from those who would undo our great 20th century accomplishment of substantially reducing the likelihood that most people will live out their last years in poverty. Programs to provide for poor children are under assault. Funding for medical research -- both economically important to the U.S. and obviously important for the quality of life -- is no longer likely to increase by the amounts it has previously seen. These are difficult problems now. Committing untold sums to send human beings to Mars and back exacerbates every one of them.

In the economists' terms, the opportunity cost of sending human beings to Mars will undoubtedly be substantially reduced medical research, far less money available to develop alternative forms of energy, less support for the nutrition and health needs of poor children, fewer police and firefighters on our streets, and far less money to help students with limited means get the college education that will be very important if some of them are to have genuine equality of opportunity.

In Henny Youngman's terms, given the large amounts of money involved, the comparison is between the satisfaction we will feel as a nation in having sent human beings to Mars and back, versus the pride I would rather feel in having made substantial strides in reducing the ravages of cancer and the terrors for people who have Alzheimer's, providing decent healthcare for all Americans, rebuilding our deteriorating roads and bridges, and constructing a first class rail network. When I compare these to the largely psychological benefits of sending people to Mars and back, I do not understand the argument for the latter.

Obviously I have no objections in principle to sending human beings to Mars, and I recognize that there is some scientific benefit from it. But the main reason to send people to Mars -- attested to by most of the scientists with whom I have spoken -- is simply to show that we can do it as a matter of national achievement, and what we will learn will mostly be how to do what we are doing. That is, sending people to live on Mars is not likely to produce the benefits for those living on Earth anything like what we can do by health research, cleaning the air, providing a safer environment, etc. The overwhelming majority of scientists I have spoken to have told me they believe that space exploration will be less productive from the standpoint of improving our knowledge of the universe and yielding benefits that will have tangible impact here at home, if we direct substantial amounts to human space travel.

I do not argue that America will never be wealthy enough to support human travel to Mars without significantly diminishing other important things we should be achieving. I am very skeptical that any time in the foreseeable future will see us with a political will sufficient to raise the resources to do so.



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