As David Bowie sits on the release of his new album, The Next Day, his age old question has been answered with a slightly more definitive and soil-supported answer of, “Yes, there has most likely been an environment that support life on Mars.”
On Wednesday, NASA released the analysis of hard rock on the surface of Mars and scientists are saying that the surface of Mars did indeed have water that could have supported life. It would even be drinkable by our standards. So, kudos to Curiosity on this exciting information, but, this should be only the beginning of a resurgence in a space race; this time, to Mars.
And this time, without all the missiles.
The time has come for NASA to plan a human expedition to Mars on the level of the Apollo missions to the moon. In all of his table-pounding passion, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has been, by far, the most outspoken proponent of the future of the American space program. It is, above all else, a catalyst. A human exploration of Mars in the name of science and human endeavor would unite the nation behind a cause in an unprecedented way.
It would be a completely new frontier. That is a hard fact to ignore.
A manned exploration of Mars would be a bold mission to scientific frontiers we have never breached before. It would create jobs, innovate the way we live here on Earth, and there would be brand new discoveries through every step of the project to put humans on Mars.
The Curiosity rover has not discovered living, breathing life on Mars, nor has it discovered the remnants of life on Mars. In an interview with NPR, the Curiosity project scientist at the California Institute of Technology, John Grotzinger, acknowledges that, “If there was microbial metabolism going on, we really wouldn't have the ability to measure that.” However, it has discovered definitive proof that ancient Mars once had an atmosphere and water that could, without a doubt, support life.
The rover drilled into bedrock that seems to have formed underneath standing water, like a lake or pond. The rover drilled down two inches into the grey (good sign!) bedrock and after analysis, they reported the rock “contained some of the key chemical ingredients for life - like sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.”
Finding evidence of an environment that (could have) supported life on Mars comes at a time when the interest in a human-expedition to Mars is producing some definitive plans on the part of private groups. Last month, BBC news reported about a planned mission by millionaire and space tourist, Dennis Tito, to send a “tested couple” on a one and a half year mission to Mars in January 2018. The project even involves Jane Poynter who spent two years (1991-1993) living with seven people inside a sealed ecosystem, a Bio-dome if you will. A mission to Mars with humans on board will take a significant amount of out-of-the-box thinkers, no matter who is launching the rocket.
In a slightly more unorthodox and daring venture, the non-profit, Dutch company Mars One is looking for a candidate to send on a one-way trip to Mars. The one-way trip will be the first step in establishing a Martian colony by 2023. On top of that, a poll has found that 7% of Americans would be willing to make such a journey to Mars. That is a slim, but significant amount of willing participants in America, never mind the rest of the world.
With or without NASA, humans will be going to Mars.
But, with the knowledge that life had a good chance of existing on Mars, we are presented with a unique moment in time where we might be able to glimpse a possible future scenario for Earth and collect evidence. Curiosity has been one of the most exciting and innovative missions NASA has successfully executed and it should be a precursor to a human expedition to the Red Planet. The United States would have much to gain from a new human endeavor coming out of NASA. New technology would have to be invented for new challenges we have never experienced before.
Many of our everyday products that we take for granted (athletic shoes, CAT scanners, athletic development machines, cordless appliances and power tools, and many more) resulted from the Apollo missions to the moon and into orbit around Earth. It is almost a certainty that a NASA mission to Mars with humans on board will result in the invention of new, innovative products that will trickle into our everyday lives.
A project on the scale of the Apollo missions would be a catalyst for new jobs, fields and inventions that will revolutionize the way we live. Such a project into a bold new frontier will capture the American imagination and the imagination of the world in a way that will greatly influence how we view humanity as part of a larger picture. When engaging in new areas of exploration, there is an undeniable amount of expectation that is a unique characteristic of humans alone. To be human without pushing out on new boundaries of exploration is to become stagnant and that is where problems occur.
A rolling stone gathers no moss.
NASA should be the spearhead of such an expedition and not become obsolete as the next boundary of the space race is forged by private companies alone (this is not to say they are not doing a good job). Competition and cooperation on the part of NASA and private companies is necessary to put a human on Mars, an endeavor that is necessary and imperative for us to undertake.