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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Hannah Pepper-Cunningham (03/24/04)

In situations in which human exploration of Mars has been discussed, both in casual conversation and in classroom discussion, it often seems difficult to get past the novelty of such exploration. Although financial and transportation difficulties are often discussed, it often seems as if the allure of the unknown combined with the popular culture connotation of Mars as a long-awaited destination obscures the realities of exploration on the planet. Professor Marchant's lecture encouraged me to devote some necessary thought to these realities, taking the exploration of Mars out of the realm of fantasy and putting it into terms of the actual human challenges that it entails.

Marchant put these challenges into an interesting context when he discussed the importance of the selection of students to accompany him to Antarctica. I was interested to hear both his observation that a student who will take the initiative to open a window in a stuffy room will be more likely to keep the interests of the group in mind at all times and his discussion of the importance of choosing individuals who will be able to withstand the isolation of the frozen continent. However, what was most interesting to me was Marchant's comment that an individual whose desire to go to Mars is based mostly on the novelty of going somewhere new would be a poor team member. This may seem like an elementary point, but it raised some interesting issues for me about scientific exploration in general. Marchant argued that a person going to Mars with such an attitude will lose interest in the planet after several days or weeks in an unchanging environment and will thus cease to be valuable to the team and its goals. To me, this illustrates on a larger, more drastic, and colder scale a fact of all science and scientific exploration. I believe that the amount of dedication that an Antarctic scientist must have in order to withstand the cold, isolation, and perhaps monotony without losing interest in her/his project is the same amount that any scientist must have in order to be successful in her/his field of research.

In an environment such as Mars, which, while analogous in many ways, is also colder, more isolated, and more dangerous than Antarctica, such monumental dedication is certainly necessary. It is necessary not only for survival, but for the scientific integrity of the exploration as well. Professor Head asked about a “seeing what is over the next hill” approach, an approach that I think correlates closely with the prevailing societal attitude that views the exploration of Mars as a novelty. This approach will result in a mission to Mars whose scientific value will not be worth half of the human, economic, and political cost of getting such a mission off of its feet. If, however, a scientific team has the dedication and desire to see over the next hill…and keep seeing…and seeing…and seeing, then I think that human exploration of Mars has the potential to be extremely fruitful.

However, the extent to which the exploration is fruitful may depend not only on the scientists/explorers themselves, but also on the society from which they come. Perhaps more importantly, because of both society's obsession with the spectacle of Mars and the heavy costs that will be incurred by an expedition to Mars, if the United States launches such a mission, the American people will most likely be very attuned to what happens on the red planet. In light of what I have discussed above, this presents an interesting dilemma. I might venture to say that, while the average American is probably excited by the idea of exploring Mars, s/he may not have a devotion to it comparable to that of the Antarctic explorers. Because of this, I wonder if, as in the case of the Antarctic explorer only in it for the novelty, the American public might become bored somewhere into a Martian exploration that could likely take many years in order to be most successful. As such exploration would be funded in part by citizens' tax dollars, such boredom could theoretically result in a lack of funding for Martian exploration. It seems, therefore, that the success of a Martian exploration depends not only on the attitudes of the explorers/scientists themselves, but on those of the American people as a whole.

I do not know enough about either Mars or Antarctica to thoroughly explore the extent to which they are compatible analogs, although I was interested to hear of the way in which terrestrial changes caused by global climate changes on Earth can be used to understand terrestrial changes on Mars. From yesterday's presentation alone, however, I would have to say that one of the most important ways in which Antarctic exploration can help to us to preparing for Martian exploration is through allowing for a greater understanding of the nature and demands of the human exploration that occurs on the icy continent now and may occur on Mars in the future.


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