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 (04/14/04)

I have to admit that I was extremely disengaged during Monday's class – not because Jim Garvin was uninteresting, but because, probably like many in our class, incredibly sleep-deprived. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, one aspect of Jim Garvin's discussion was particularly interesting and surprising to me: his frequent allusion to not only the possibility of biological life on Mars, but to the possibility of substantially developed life as well. One thing that I love about this course is the way in which even when I think that we have closed an issue, it will come up in discussion or in lecture weeks later in a new and interesting way. Due to my own biases and skepticism, by the end of our discussions about life on Mars, I had come to the conclusion that, while there was still a possibility of finding small biological molecules on Mars, the likelihood of intelligent, or even significantly developed life was slim to nil. Even with the understanding that very elementary life was possible and despite weekly updates on the presence of water on Mars, I had sort of forgotten that the search for life itself on Mars was still a major part of exploration. Needless to say, my understanding of the probability and possible nature of life on Mars was greatly shaken yesterday when Garvin talked about the possibility of something living “crawling out from under a rock.” It is true, of course, that Garvin could have been exaggerating to illustrate a point, but the fact that a NASA program scientist was asserting that he had high hopes for finding life on Mars challenged the way in which I have been thinking about the red planet's capacity for life.

Garvin's discussion of human exploration was very interesting to me. He raised very good points about the advantages of human exploration. In addition to the human ability to travel farther distances when driving, handle samples with more skill, and do analysis more adeptly than robots, he made his most convincing point when he pointed to the human ability to adapt rapidly to the unexpected. Directly related to this, I think, is the human ability to think critically about their surroundings, thus giving more dynamism and insight to the Mars mission and allowing it to maximize its relevance and effectiveness. He also pointed out the important concern presented by human exploration that humans could possibly contaminate samples. Garvin said that such a possibility would necessitate the transportation of laboratory materials to Mars, and I agree. However, even with such advancement, the presence of humans alone would allow for the contamination of the planet and I am sure that a great amount of money will go into contamination-proofing the astronauts and their equipments. In this vein, I would be interested in learning about how the rovers have been contamination-proofed.

Garvin said that humans will reach Mars at the earliest in 15 to 20 years. With this in mind, I was interested by Garvin's discussion of the way in which Mars is seen as a long-term investment for companies. I was unclear, however, as to what he suggested the consequence of such a view was. He seemed to say that, while such an investment is important to the companies themselves, it is hard for them to pitch it to their stockholders and customers. I think this reveals a lot about the American mentality towards quick returns and profits. However, it is important to acknowledge how much can happen in 20 years, especially given the notably unstable state of our world today. So, while I think that long term investments are very important, it is also interesting to consider that something may transpire in 20 years that may make the exploration of Mars irrelevant, impossible, or both. Perhaps this is one reason why some people are reluctant to make such a long-term investment. However, even the possibility that a planned Mars mission may not come to fruition does not completely detract from Garvin's argument for the exploration of Mars. One thing that became clear to me through Garvin's talk is that what is fruitful in exploration is not just the attainment of the goal alone, but what one gains throughout the process of reaching that goal. The attempt to get humans to Mars would force scientists, engineers, and policy-makers to address important questions and make influential discoveries. Many of the returns from a Mars mission that Garvin discussed, such as the development of carbon tubules (?), would result from not reaching Mars, but from the process of getting there. Therefore, there is value in the Mars exploration not only because of the desired goal, but also because of what would be accomplished in reaching it.

However, the Garvin's admission that only 5% of the money for Mars exploration would be given to science suggests that the majority of the benefits of attempting to send humans to Mars would not be scientific in nature. Therefore, while the exploration of Mars would lead to many important achievements and benefits, I think that it is important to examine the nature of the funding for this exploration in order to determine the worth of the exploration. For example, if the funding of the exploration were to come from, say, the National Academy for the Sciences, I would suggest that this would not be an effective way to spend money designated for scientific research. However, as we discussed in class, tracing the source of the money is nowhere near as simple as this. I very much agree with Kate's point that money is available if it needs to be. However, I think that if the government pledges to give money to “scientific exploration” through funding the exploration of Mars, it might make them feel off the hook for giving any additional money to science. Therefore, I think that it is important that we be extremely clear and specific about where money given to Mars exploration is going and about how much money is actually going to explicit scientific research.

 

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