A Case for the Eradication of Unmanned Mars Missions

Tue, 7 Dec 1999 00:51:37 EST

The Human Imperative: A Case for the Eradication of Unmanned Mars Missions

Part 1

by Mac Tonnies

The recent loss of the Mars Polar Lander, the second in a series of probes to fall victim to NASA's "faster, better, cheaper" mission philosophy, provides an excellent opportunity to reassess our commitment to Mars exploration. The "human imperative" advocates nothing less than a manned mission in place of all future robotic missions, preferably to begin as soon as possible.

The data we can glean from the cursory examinations of telerobotic probes is scant, and promises little that cannot be investigated firsthand, by human astronauts using space hardware that is largely in existence right now. Furthermore, plans for future telerobotic missions are decidedly high-risk, even compared to ambitious landers such as the Pathfinder mission (spectacularly successful) and the Polar Lander (dead on arrival). The Mars Sample Return mission, for example (scheduled for 2005), seeks to scoop up Martian soil and fling it back to Earth aboard automated rockets.

Needless to say, NASA's ability to carry this mission off successfully must be called into question. At best, a successful sample return will tell us interesting but ultimately little about Mars' geologic, climatic, and biological history.

And it should be noted that we _already_ have rocks of known Martin origin at our disposal. Scientists, lacking the context a manned Mars mission would provide, have (rather understandably) been unable to decide if the rocks in question contain biological remains or not. This situation is likely to remain unchanged even if the Mars Sample Return mission is successful. Without a human presence on the Martian surface, virtually all questions aimed at Mars' enigmatic past must remain, for all practical intents and purposes, theoretical ventures framed by the utopian notion that we'll make it to the Red Planet in person "eventually" (current dates forecasted by informed scientists and futurists range from 2010 to 2020 and beyond).

Rethinking our commitment robotic exploration is vital; with each robotic mission, failed or otherwise, the looming date of the first manned landing will remain just as nebulous as it was five or ten years ago.

Failures of the Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, ironically, might actually push official policy in favor of manned, vs. robotic, planetary missions by reinforcing the notion that a hands-on human team could certainly do no worse than the fragile emissaries we choose to send in our stead. Ultimately, though, I don't foresee this being the case; I seriously doubt if manned space flight occupies much role at all in the present scheme. Robotic missions have been in the works for so long now that it appears we're to suffer through all of them, learning remarkably little in terms of worthy goals such as human colonization. Our understanding of Mars is not being executed through reason, but through the blind inertia that befalls all bureaucracies. NASA, from the petty triumphs of Apollo to the current fiasco with inexpensive, mismanaged probes, is certainly no exception.

Readers are urged to sign the Mars petition accessible online at the following site: www.marssociety.com

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Mac Tonnies