Geo016 - Exploration of Mars

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Geo016 / Exploration of Mars / (M) 3:00-5:20 / Lincoln Field 105 / Prof. James Head

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Alexandra Grassian (04/14/04)

On Monday, we talked with Dr. Garvin, the head of NASA's Science division. One of the first questions that was asked brought us back once again to the issue of machine verse human exploration. Dr. Garvin thought it was very important that we do try to eventually get humans on to the surface of Mars, although he stressed that conditions would have to be very safe before we could consider doing so. Antarctica, he thought, might serve as a potential training ground for the astronauts that would make this trip to Mars. One reason he said humans would be helpful to have as explorers would be because evidence can often be elusive, and machines have to know what they are looking for in order to find it. It is much easier, though, for humans to be able to adapt to very unexpected conditions rovers would take much longer to do so. In addition, the machines often have trouble actually collecting the samples, while humans would be able to do so with much greater skill. Machines would still obviously be needed to analyze the samples collected.

Bringing humans to Mars is no easy task, though, as we have seen over and over again. The round trip would be around a year to a year and a half, and they would encounter many hazards on the way. The technology to get there would have to be very sophisticated, and we do not yet have what is needed. Life support alone, Dr. Garvin told us, would weight somewhere between two and three tons. This is all extra bulk from what had to be sent with the rovers. In addition, humans have never ventured quite so far into deep space, so all of the safety issues are not quite clear yet. Long exposure to radiation and other such encounters could lead to unforeseen effects. At this point, it is not possible to predict exactly what the space craft that might transport the humans would like like, as technology is advancing at such a rapid rate, and new materials are being discovered so often. Dr. Garvin emphasized the extreme importance of being almost absolutely certain that the humans that were sent to Mars could be returned safely and in good health. Some issues that would be involved in this include changing weather conditions with the changing seasons.

Dr. Garvin's answer to my question really surprised me. I asked him what the final piece of evidence that really proved to him that there was once water on the surface of Mars. I expected him to say one of the chemical analyses, such as the finding of hematite or the spectroscopy results, as those really made it clear in my mind that water must have been present at some point. Instead he said that simply the features of Mars itself proved to him that water must have been there. Between the shapes of the cross sections and the layers, as well as the different round objects found and the way the landscape was assembled, he said that in his mind there was just absolutely no other plausible explanation. I always thought that scientists rely so much on experimental data and I could not believe that he used such subjective data to confirm his suspicions. In really made me take a step back and look at how I view science it really is more than simply a lot of little experiments, and its really important to remember to step back and look at the whole picture. This, I believe, will prove to be especially important on Mars, because of the issue of bringing samples back to Earth. One of the reasons this could prove difficult is the chemical nature of the samples themselves could change during the journey back to Earth, and then through the Earth's atmosphere. Just as we do not know how the radiation will affect humans, no one can quite predict how it could alter these samples. The second, and perhaps more challenging issue, is ensuring the safety of life on Earth once these samples were brought to our surface. It could contaminate and cause mass damage. So until then, it is very important that we send sophisticate lab equipment to Mars itself.
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