Should We Try to Send Humans to Mars?

NASA

What an astronaut’s living quarters might look like on Mars

A human mission to Mars once seemed the stuff of science fiction. But thanks to major scientific advance­ments, reaching—and surviving on—the Red Planet could become  a reality in our life­time. NASA, the U.S. space agency, is already developing the technology to make such a trip possible.

In addition, several private companies, such as SpaceX, are working on spacecraft and other tech with a goal of putting people on Mars in the next decade or two.

But while most experts agree that we’ll one day be able to send humans to Mars, not all of them think we should.

Supporters of sending humans to Mars say learning more about it could help us understand our own planet. And while scientists are already studying Mars with rovers and other remote devices, nothing beats direct human experience when it comes to analyzing new information.

Other people, however, point out that making the long journey through space could threaten the astronauts’ health. So could spending time on Mars, which lacks water and breathable air. Other places in our solar system might be easier to explore, such as one of Saturn’s moons.

Should we try to send humans to Mars? Two scientists weigh in.

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YES

NASA has been sending robots to study and collect information about the Red Planet since 1965. The findings have inspired scientists to continue asking important questions, such as: Did life once exist on Mars? Does it exist there today? Could humans eventually live on Mars? What can the planet tell us about Earth’s past, present, and future?

Many scientists agree that only human explorers can answer these questions. Although robots have been extremely helpful in studying Mars, people will be even better.

Humans can move faster than robots, and make quicker decisions.

For one thing, humans will be able to make quicker decisions, without having to rely on commands from scientists on Earth, like robots do. What can take a rover days and weeks to analyze, a person can study in just hours. In addition, humans will be able to move around the planet much faster than a robot can. The Curiosity rover, which is currently exploring Mars, can only travel about the length of a football field in one day.

However, getting humans to Mars and keeping them safe will require advances in technology. Not only is Mars very far away, it also lacks breathable air, usable water, and protection from the sun. A round-trip to Mars takes about 18 months, and there isn’t enough room on current spacecraft to carry all the food, water, and other items humans would need to survive. That’s why NASA is looking for ways to utilize the Martian soil, water, and other resources.

Exploring space is beneficial for all of us. At NASA, we’re confident that one day humans will be able to travel to Mars, live and work there, and return safely to Earth. It’s just a matter of time. Will you be one of the astronauts to explore Mars?

—James Green
Chief Scientist, NASA

NO

It is important to explore Mars, and humans play a valuable role in that research. Though robotic spacecraft can do a lot, they lack the critical firsthand experience that can only be captured by humans. However, sending people to Mars for long periods of time would be extremely unsafe, and we shouldn’t do it.

For one thing, space is a very hazardous place for humans. In particular, space radiation, especially galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), is dangerous. GCRs are energetic particles that come into our solar system from faraway exploding stars. Without the protection of a thick atmosphere like we have here on Earth, the particles can cause cancer and even brain damage. The longer astronauts are in space, both traveling to Mars and on the surface of the planet, the more they’re exposed to these rays and the more damage they’re likely to experience.

Sending people to Mars for long periods can be extremely unsafe.

Luckily, there’s a safer solar system destination for humans: Saturn’s moon Titan. Located roughly 745 million miles from Earth, it has a thick atmosphere that provides protection from dangerous radiation.

Titan has many other Earth-like qualities that could help us learn more about our home planet. For instance, Titan has lakes and seas. It also has wind, weather, and seasons similar to Earth’s, and many resources to build a self-sustaining settlement. To top it off, because of the low gravity and thick atmosphere, humans on Titan could fly—just by jumping up and flapping their arms.

Though likely to be far in the future, human exploration of Titan could inspire upcoming generations of scientists and engineers to reach for distant locations in our solar system and beyond—and could help us better understand Earth.

—Amanda R. Hendrix, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist, Planetary Science Institute and author of Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets

Write About It! What do you think? Should we try to send humans to Mars? Write a one-page argument essay explaining your answer, using facts from this article as supporting evidence.

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