Are Mars missions a scam? That seems to be the conclusion of a Monday article in Buzzfeed, which examines the Mars One effort as well as the NASA space exploration plan that envisions humans landing on Mars in the 2030s. The headline comes from a statement by John Logsdon, considered the dean of space historians, referring to the Mars One project and not necessarily anyone else’s, either NASA’s or the dreams of a Mars colony expressed by SpaceX’s Elon Musk.
Mars One recently announced the names of the “Mars 100” group of prospective Mars colonists that it says will start training for one way Mars voyages to start in the 2020s. A number of these potential Martians have expressed their individual reasons for going to Mars and living the rest of their lives there. Hannah Earnshaw, a self-described scientist, student, and adventurer points out the scientific research possibilities that a Mars colony could provide. But the science would not be the only reason.
“The social and political implications of a colony on another planet are staggering, and its development will be fascinating. Will the Martian colony be its own political entity? (I hope so.) If so, how will it relate to Earth? What will Martian society, kick-started by an incredibly diverse and intelligent group of just 40 people, come to look like in the decades to follow colonization? Will it remain very connected to Earth, or will its start to develop its own culture, with its own customs, habits, and rituals for birth, death and other significant moments of life, such as one’s first step onto the Martian surface? What sort of a world will our descendants inherit – and will they remain friends with their cousins on Earth?”
Earnshaw’s dream of a new branch of humanity on Mars reflects some of the thinking of Robert Zubrin, a long-time advocate of Mars exploration and settlement. An effort to colonize Mars would not only open up a frontier that would capture the imagination and channel the energies of people on Earth, but it would ultimately ensure the long-term survival of the human species, in Zubrin’s view.
However, the Mars One effort falls short not only in the technology that would be involved to pull it off, but the money that would be required. MIT has already come out with a study that suggests that as it stands now the Mars One colony would be a complicated and expensive method of suicide, provided that the colonists even make it to the Red Planet. Gerard ’t Hooft, a Dutch Nobel laureate and ambassador for the project, has also expressed doubts that the project can be brought to fruition as advertised.
What about NASA’s goal of landing astronauts on Mars and returning them to Earth by the 2030s? Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a critic of NASA’s approach to space exploration, suggests that the problem is money. The Obama administration and its minions at NASA have made brave noises about going to Mars, but thus far have not been willing to spend the money it would take to build the vehicles, life support systems and other hardware beyond the Orion spacecraft and the heavy-lift Space Launch System needed to go to Mars and back.
Whether going to Mars is a scam depends on whose plan one is talking about. The Mars One scheme, on close examination, seems half-baked at best. NASA could pull off a Mars mission if it were given the money to accomplish the mission. No one knows enough of Elon Musk;s thinking on the subject to judge one way or another.
Ultimately the question of whether or not to go to Mars and found a colony there is informed by a person’s values. Leaving aside the other question, whether the moon is a better and more realistic short term destination, those who dream of Mars see the possibilities of a future greater than the present, filled with promise. Those who think the idea is a scam do not see any possibilities in the future much different than the present. Whose view will ultimately prevail is an open question.