Seeking a rationale for human space exploration
Looking beyond science
While the relative utilities of humans and robots doing science on Mars was a cornerstone of the debate, it was not the only reason for sending people to the Red Planet discussed. Both Park and Zubrin spent time promoting or debunking various other, more intangible, reasons for sending humans to Mars.
Zubrin cited two reasons beyond science for sending humans to Mars. He claimed that sending humans to Mars would create an inspirational challenge to society, particularly youth, in much the same manner that Apollo provided. “It would be an invitation to adventure to every young person in this country: learn your science and you can become part of pioneering a new world,” he said. “This is a question of basic values of society.”
Park, however, was not enamored with that idea. “The image of explorers facing the unknown dangers of a strange planet a hundred million miles from Earth is certainly heroic, but it’s hopelessly old-fashioned,” he said. “If you want romance, read somebody like [Danielle] Steel.”
Likewise, Park was unimpressed with another argument people have put forward in favor of human Mars missions, the notion of spinoffs. “There are three kinds of liars: there are ordinary liars, damned liars, and spinoff claimers,” he said. “The spinoff is the biggest pile of crap that you can possibly imagine.”
Zubrin had a simple response. “One of the noteworthy spinoffs of the Christopher Columbus mission,” he said, “was the United States of America.” The comment played into his other reason other than science for sending humans to Mars. “If we do what we can do in our day, which is establish that first human foothold on Mars, then 500 years from now there will be a new branch of human civilization on Mars, perhaps many new branches of human civilization on Mars,” he said. “That is something wonderful. That is something enormously valuable. I wonder if one can put a price tag on how valuable it is to humanity to have a new branch of human civilization that is making contributions to human progress and the human story.”
One thing Park and Zubrin did agree on is that international cooperation is not a good reason for sending humans into space, citing the International Space Station among other projects. “The biggest disaster has been in areas like fusion research, where that was also to be done internationally,” said Park. “It’s been a total disaster. Nothing has happened.” Zubrin advocated something along the lines of Olympic competition, “to see who can do the most to advance the scientific goals of human Mars exploration.”
Why send humans to Mars?
In the end, it is difficult to say who “won” or “lost” the debate. Most people attending the debate already likely had strong opinions one way or another regarding human space exploration, and were not swayed by the arguments of Park and Zubrin. It’s tempting to conclude that Zubrin presented the better argument, but that is based on the bias of many people in the room—this author included—towards human spaceflight.
The debate, though, revealed a larger issue: the lack of a coherent, persuasive rationale for human exploration of Mars, or human space exploration in general. Much of the focus of the debate was on the scientific reasons for sending, or not sending, humans to Mars. Yet, in the long run, science will play only a limited role as the basis for human exploration. While Zubrin correctly criticizes the capabilities of robots, they do provide some significant degree of scientific return for a fraction of the cost—and risk—of sending humans. It seems unlikely that the American taxpayer would be willing to spend the extra money, be it a factor of 10 or 100, to send humans to Mars just for the ability of them to more effectively hunt for fossils.
To be successful, human exploration advocates need reasons beyond science to convince the public, and many of the arguments advanced to date are less than compelling. A humans-to-Mars program might well be exciting, and offer motivation to a new generation of students, but is this the best way, or the only way, to motivate youth to study math and science? In addition, trying to promote human exploration on the far-future benefits of a new civilization seems like a tough sell. While the US may have been a spinoff of Columbus’ voyages, it certainly wasn’t a selling point he made when was trying to woo his royal patrons. Then, and now, people are far more interested in the short-term outcome of exploration than any nebulous long-term benefits.
Appealing to baser concerns, namely fear and greed, also fails to provide a strong rationale for exploration. Unlike near Earth asteroids, for example, Mars poses no threat to the Earth in any conceivable manner. In addition, there is little danger to American security if some other country mounted a human mission to Mars. Also, despite some efforts to concoct a business plan for commercial human exploration of Mars, the sheer costs associated with such a mission make it hard to find anything to sell that could make such a business plan close. “You know, point out some of the riches on Mars to me, if you would,” Park said. “I’m at a loss as to know what we could bring back that would begin to compensate for the cost of going to get it.”
This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to put together a strong rationale for sending humans to Mars—or elsewhere in the solar system, for that matter—only that such a rationale doesn’t exist now. Such a mission can’t be based on science alone, given the limited appetite the public has for science compared to the costs for such a mission. Finding the right balance of science and other factors is critical to convince taxpayers to part with $100 billion or more of their money over the next couple of decades to fund the Bush space initiative, or some alternative plan. That challenge may be as big as any technological hurdle human space exploration will face.