Why we don’t need to send a man to Mars—at least, not yet

Why we don’t need to send a man to Mars—at least, not yet


NASA has conquered Yellowknife. On Aug. 6 the U.S. space agency landed its one-tonne Curiosity rover, equipped with a fabulous array of visual, chemical and radiological sensors, in the Gale Crater near the equator of Mars. Martian craters are divided into squares named arbitrarily after minor Earth cities, and when the mobile Mars lab Curiosity found its way to the surface after a landing sequence of confounding complexity, it happened to set down on the square labelled Yellowknife. The name had been picked by geologists who had studied the ancient stones of the Canadian Shield, and know Earth’s Yellowknife well.

The name of Yellowknife Base is a nice random touch of international amity, and Curiosity is also carrying a Canadian Space Agency spectrometer—the first piece of Canadian technology ever to operate on the face of another planet. So we Canadians can sit back and enjoy the show, knowing we are playing a small part in what is perhaps the most sophisticated extraterrestrial venture—manned or unmanned—that the species has undertaken.

The Americans aren’t so lucky. They still have that “man on the moon” thing hanging over them. In American eyes, Curiosity is simultaneously being celebrated and deprecated; it’s a triumph of the U.S.A.’s brightest engineering minds, a remarkable leap forward in robotic space exploration at a time of budget austerity—but it doesn’t have the same emotional tug as boots on the Martian ground would.

This seems to be cause for some disappointment. We may well learn more about Mars from Curiosity than all the Apollo missions combined told us about Earth’s moon, but, in the words of American shuttle astronaut Tom Jones: “Science is one of the great results of exploring the cosmos, but it’s not the only reason we go to space. We send humans as an expression of national will and the superiority of our form of government.”

Even assuming that Canada’s quite different form of government is included in the fun—and the bit about “national will” makes that assumption difficult—this is a funny sort of argument if looked at in a coldly logical light. Country X sending incredibly versatile robots to Mars doesn’t argue for the superiority of its form of government, but sending humans does? That appears to be the working premise. President Obama, whose underappreciated nostalgic-macho streak played a role in the U.S. government’s auto bailouts, said in a congratulatory phone call to Curiosity mission control that NASA was “laying the groundwork for an even more audacious undertaking in the future, and that’s a human mission to the red planet.”

Maybe the scientists on the other end of the phone didn’t notice they were being told by their President that their mission to Mars somehow did not count as “human.” But someone should object on their behalf.

Any space specialist will admit, as Tom Jones does, that the added marginal scientific value of a manned mission to Mars will probably, on the whole, be zero to negative for the foreseeable future. And that is without considering the fact that robots get more robust and intelligent with each generation a lot faster than soft pink oxygen-breathing humans do. “If we can put a man on the moon” reasoning does not apply to the manned exploration of Mars, since the red planet is not conveniently in orbit around us. Practical Earth-Mars round-trip times involving rocketry are estimated at 2.6 years by the Mars Society. That means a manned Mars mission would have to be self-sufficient in ways that the Apollo astronauts weren’t.

The challenges of extracting breathable oxygen from the Martian carbon dioxide atmosphere and shielding the Mars explorers from radiation are only the beginning—and, for that matter, only the foreseeable beginnings of the problem. The logistical difficulties are so profound that a minority of Mars enthusiasts, with Buzz Aldrin as their chief advocate, believe that early missions should be one-way colonization trips, with resupply from Earth but no prospect of an expensive return for the Martian pioneers.

Finding alternative venues for human life is an essential part of the pretext for everything we do in space. But without consensus on the right long-term approach to Mars, we can afford to wait, discuss bold ideas like Aldrin’s, and gather information. In the long meantime—probably not a matter of 20 years, but a hundred—our mindset should not be that we haven’t really reached Mars until we walk on it.

We shouldn’t think of missions like Curiosity as second-best, unsatisfying expressions of utilitarianism, austerity and humility. Curiosity is what Marshall McLuhan would have called an “extension of man”: we are present on Mars, right now. Any future manned mission will be just another chapter in a story we have already begun to write.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.