By Owais Iqbal

Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece and views expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Beehive or The Beehive’s associated writers.

Mankind has desired to travel to Mars, which was named after the Roman god of war due to its bloody appearance, ever since our forefathers discovered it many millennia ago. In fact, German physicist and astronautics engineer Wernher von Braun wrote a book entitled Das Marsprojekt (The Mars Project) in 1948, 13 years before Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel into outer space and 21 years before Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of our moon. Wade (1997) says ‘Das Marsprojekt was the first technically comprehensive design for a manned expedition to Mars’. The purpose of this essay is to analyse whether or not NASA should be pursuing a manned mission to Mars and highlight the ideas that have been suggested to give this much-debated topic a conclusion.

Arguably the most, if not one of the most, significant issues raised concerning a manned mission to Mars is the cost. Wall (2012) says ‘NASA estimates peg the overall expenditures at about $100billion over 30 or 40 years’. However, the International Space System cost 10 times NASA’s estimate of $10billion and took nearly 30 years to build (NASA had said it would take 10 years). This shows that NASA cannot always be relied upon with cost and timeline estimations. Briers (2011) says ‘that money could be put to better use’. There are many other more important issues that should be tackled before we begin to even think about sending man to Mars such as poverty, disease and lack of education. Some may argue that the resources that the government plans to provide NASA should be used to help advance medical treatment e.g. finding a cure for cancer would help save millions of lives. According to Cancer Research UK, 8.2million people died of cancer worldwide in 2012. Briers (2011) mentions this in his online article, saying ‘we have many pressing issues like poverty across the globe’. Even Orwig (2015), who argues strongly in favour of sending men to Mars, says ‘it’s easier to imagine how that kind of money could immediately help in the fight against cancer’. John (2011) says ‘a manned mission would also be extremely costly and many would argue that such vast sums of national revenue might be better spent on healthcare and education on Earth’. Another huge problem facing mankind is global warming and the increasing lack of fossil fuels. Environmentalists believe that money spent on reusable energy sources would benefit humanity much more than man landing on Mars. However, Briers (2011) also mentions a “safety planet” idea in case ‘someday the global population may not be able to survive off the resources here on Earth…then there is the threat of asteroids hitting the planet and causing worldwide catastrophe’.

Another reason why NASA should not consider a manned mission to Mars that has been raised by some physicists and journalists alike is that the mission itself is dangerous. Briers (2011) suggests ‘there are numerous unforeseeable events that can occur en route or on Mars’. Physicists are particularly concerned about space radiation which can ‘cause cancer, cataract formation, or death’. Harbour (2014) takes an arguably pessimistic view, by warning ‘If you get cancer there will be no chemotherapy available … Cancer will be a death sentence, and an excruciating one at that’. Previous unmanned missions to Mars have not given us reason to believe that a Mars landing would be safe. Gray (2013) also warns ‘landing on another planet is a dicey affair. The success rate on Mars is roughly around 30 per cent’. However, he does go on to suggest that this figure may improve with astronauts controlling the spacecraft. NASA’s Apollo landers never once crash landed whilst attempting to land on the moon. An argument made against this rather commendable achievement, however, is that the Red Planet has an atmosphere and a stronger gravitational pull, which may provide an alternative explanation of the differing success rates.

One of the main reasons suggested for why NASA should send man to Mars is the natural human inclination to explore and research things we do not know about. Wiles (2013) states ‘humanity’s interest in the heavens has been universal and enduring. Humans are driven to explore the unknown, discover new worlds, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits, and then push further’. Humankind has always aspired to strive to greatness and achieve the impossible, otherwise our world would not be the same as it is today- more technologically advanced than ever before and still improving. One of the questions on the Mars-One (a Dutch organisation aiming to colonise Mars by 2027) Frequently Asked Questions page is ‘Why should we go to Mars?’ and the response given is ‘Why did Columbus travel west? Why did Marco Polo head east? Because it is that pull, that unknown, that prospect of adventure that compels humans to new frontiers to explore’. (Coward, F. et al. 2016. Pg.20) agree, stating ‘Homo Sapiens has rapidly expanded across the world- testament to our species’ curiosity and creativity in adapting to different habitats’. Why should this be limited to Earth? Can our species successfully adapt to the environment of Mars? This is supported by (John, D. 2011. Pg.105) who notes ‘a manned mission to Mars would proudly denote a key stage in humanity’s evolution’.

In addition to this, some people have suggested that we need to send man to Mars, and eventually colonise the Red Planet so that we can ensure the survival of the human race. Orwig (2015) states ‘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’. This is linked to the safety planet theory that Briers (2011) quotes from paragraph 2. Boston Commons (2015) says ‘Mars colonisation has value for scientific reasons: simply colonising a mildly (compared to anything but Earth) hostile planet and how to solve those problems which will be useful for longer expeditions to moons of Jupiter perhaps, or Saturn’. The famous explorer Christopher Columbus was quoted in Coward et al.’s The History Book as saying ‘I should not proceed by land to the East, as is customary, but by a Westerly route’. If Columbus did not take a risk and take the Westerly route, if Marco Polo had not followed his heart’s desires and travelled to the East, the world would not be as it is today- would the USA be the country it is today? Sending manned missions to Mars could be a similar opportunity, looked back upon in the future as a turning point in mankind’s history. Furthermore, Boston Commons (2015) states ‘if the experience of the Apollo program provides an appropriate guide to the future, sending human crews to explore Mars would likely create public interest in the space program and encourage some young people to enter careers in engineering, mathematics, or science’. This is agreed upon by NASA’s former chief historian, quoted by Roach (2004), who said- at Apollo 11’s 35th anniversary- ‘putting a man on the moon not only inspired the nation, but also the world’. Riley (2012) highlights ‘the gifts of Apollo continue to ripple down the decades, and they still have the power to unite and inspire us’. If a manned moon landing could have such a profound effect, what will man reaching Mars have on a disbelieving population? Just over half a century ago people doubted whether man could land on the moon.

Overall, I believe that NASA should not send manned missions to Mars. This is because there are many more pressing issues that need to be dealt with at home on Earth. The Wikipedia article entitled Extreme Poverty states ‘using the World Bank definition of $1.25/day, as of September 2013, roughly 1.2 billion people remain in extreme poverty.’ If the world cannot afford to provide the 1.2 billion people assistance to overcome their difficulties, I believe the USA has no justification to continue the NASA manned missions to Mars. Resources can be better directed on other projects, such as finding a cure for cancer. In addition, the mission itself is dangerous due to several issues that have been brought to light in this essay. As highlighted, there is a severe risk of cancer by space radiation. In my opinion, NASA should not send man to Mars as this could mean astronauts will be put at risk of space radiation. Earth has always been our home, and it shall remain so forevermore and a manned mission to Mars is not going to change this.

A list of references may be found here.