Op-Ed: The real case for Mars by the 2030s

Sunday, October 23, 2016 - 6:11pm

I had a delightfully cranky calculus teacher in high school. He had been teaching mathematics for a long time and he loved his job, partly because he enjoyed watching his students squirm in their seats. He would look at us with disapproval, his lower lip curled, and he was sarcastically condescending. I remember his words well for one instaance, in particular: “My generation,” he barked, “put a man on the moon. What’s your generation ever done?” I think this sums up well the attitude he portrayed in the classroom.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously issued the challenge to complete a moon mission by the end of the decade, and on July 24, 1969 (170 days to spare!), the Apollo 11 astronauts landed safely in the Pacific Ocean after the first moonwalk in history. “Like putting a man on the moon” is a phrase used today to refer to any herculean task because it’s an accomplishment that belongs to only one country on our globe, and one that Americans are proud of.

We find ourselves possibly in the middle of a similar story now. Just as in the Cold War, Americans are currently dealing with uncertainty about the future and the president has tried to inspire the nation in that midst. President Barack Obama wrote a featured op-ed for CNN reiterating his challenge for the United States to go to Mars while summarizing his vision of the prioritization of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and research to meet the country’s toughest challenges. He’s shared aspirations of planning a Mars mission throughout his presidency, but it will be up to his successors to uphold this vision. Mars is a dramatic undertaking in the face of current lingering issues, and the public should carefully consider the merits and limitations of Mars exploration when choosing the policymakers and crafters of our national scientific initiatives.

Like I hinted at earlier, I tend to linger in the camp that would exalt a Mars mission, for the same reasons that our president espouses: “curiosity and exploration, innovation and ingenuity, pushing the boundaries of what's possible and doing it before anybody else.” Exploration runs in our blood. It would prove our capability to previous generations by undertaking such a challenge and succeeding. On the other hand, Mars naysayers claim that we must reconsider such enthusiasm, given several issues that are more urgent and closer to home that demand our finite resources. Arwa Madawi, who writes for The Guardian, claims there are more pressing issues “than a contest about who has the biggest rocket.” There’s carbon pollution, including that which might result from a more active space program, to consider and the water crisis in Flint. Fair enough.

The deteriorating condition of our natural environment is perhaps in itself a technological challenge that generates a similar boost to scientific advancement as did the space race. “Cleantech,” as it’s referred to, is in vogue. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, global investment in clean energy has grown 430 percent from $62 billion in 2004 to $329 billion in 2015. With heightened interest in developing more sustainable technologies to reverse environmental damage, we can improve the condition of the environment and through that process, keep STEM education and initiatives at the forefront because of the increased demand for scientists and engineers.

Inspired to dig into the science to look for concrete reasons why Mars missions, as much as cleantech, could serve humanity in the next few decades, I came up short. I thought about population overcrowding, but current models predict the world’s population may begin to stabilize by the middle of the century. The moon would be an easier alternative anyway: much closer, more familiar and hardly less habitable.

The problem with arguing for investment in actions to preserve and improve the terrestrial environment over space exploration is that the benefits of each would arrive on significantly different timelines. Fixing the infrastructure in Flint to provide its residents with reliably clean water or eliminating pollution and transitioning to 100-percent clean and sustainable energy systems would create immediate benefit for public health. However, the rewards of traveling to Mars are more distant and unknown. I would compare space travel to Mars to the decision to fund basic research, and essentially, one could apply the same reason for exploring Mars as for conducting basic research in general: Looking into the future, it’s difficult to say what it would lead to. But standing in the present and looking back, given all the breakthroughs achieved through explorative research over the past century, it’s a no-brainer.

So yes, there are many out there who wouldn’t see the reason to embark on a Mars mission, because pride, perseverance and other “Obama words” aren’t tangible enough to convince them of its worth. But to miss out on the chance of reaping byproducts such as new advances in energy, agriculture and artificial intelligence, is it possible that before the end of our lifetimes, we’ll find ourselves in a circumstance where we wish we had?