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Since humans first discovered other planets, we have been fascinated by Mars and looked for ways to get astronauts to the red planet. The idea doesn’t belong to just one country or century either, with early references in science books from the 1600s and newer ones video games and TV shows today. So what makes it so popular? Why not Venus, if it’s closer? Why even bother with other planets when there is so much for us to work on here on Earth? Let’s break it down together.
The space community has been coming up with plans to go to that bright spot in the sky for over 65 years. In that time, we’ve sent all types of robots to Mars – from the crash-landed Mars 2 satellite in 1971 and the Viking 1 lander in 1976, to the more recent Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity rover missions. The most recent rover, Curiosity, is powered by a nuclear engine and has more Twitter followers than most humans. But even the best rovers can only do so much.
Sometimes, humans are just more efficient than robots. Take, for example, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Opportunity was in operation for almost fourteen years, a deeply impressive feat of engineering. But in all that time, it only travelled 42 kilometers (26.1 miles). And both rovers have been sitting idle on Mars ever since they got stuck in the Martian soil. It’s been said that what a rover could do in 6 months, a human could do in 2 hours.
And of course, there’s a time delay for communication. It takes anywhere from 4 to 24 minutes to send a message from Earth to Mars, and the same amount of time for a message to come back. Since rovers move around based on commands from Earth, movements get bogged down not only by the processes of sending and receiving data, but also the time it takes for Earth-based scientists to decide the best course of action.
A human wouldn’t need to wait almost half an hour to decide to walk forward a few centimeters. There potential for what a human could do on the Martian surface is enormous. That’s why the idea of sending a human – as opposed to another robot – is so important.
But why Mars instead of another planet? Venus is closer than Mars by about 69 kilometers (42.9 miles). And even though people tend to think of Mars as Earth-like, Venus
holds the nickname “Earth’s twin.” When it comes down to it, Venus is a whirling ball of toxic, fiery greenhouse gases. Every lander or probe sent to its surface had a fairly short life, with the longest one lasting only two hours before being destroyed by the environment. Pressures are also comparable to 300 meters (984.3 feet) under the surface of Earth’s ocean, so everything gets totally crushed.
Ultimately, the other planets don’t provide many good options. They are uninhabitable either due to temperature, distance, or a lack of a surface to stand on. So, in terms of our own solar system, Mars is relatively comfortable, familiar, and ready for humans. It becomes the obvious destination.
But going to Mars isn’t just about how, it’s about why. Think about what Benjamin Franklin said about one of the first manned flights in a hot air balloon. When asked why do such a thing, he asked “What use is a newborn baby?” Journeys of this kind mark a beginning – the first step that turns into something greater.
Going to Mars will take all of us, from different countries and different backgrounds. And when we come together for a common goal, we truly can achieve anything – even plant the seed of human life on Mars. No matter how seemingly small, it will grow into more than we could have ever imagined. And future branches may extend into the rest of our solar system, galaxy, and beyond. Going to the Moon pumped blood and new excitement for science and technology in our own world, so just think about what stepping foot on another planet would do.
greenhouse gases: gases caught in an atmosphere that trap heat from the Sun
lander: a robotic spacecraft that sits on a planet but does not move around
nuclear engine: a generator that uses nuclear energy to stay active
probe: a robotic spacecraft that orbits or flies by a planet’s atmosphere
rover: a robotic spacecraft that moves around on a planet’s surface