Andy Weir Says Humans Won't Make it to Mars Until 2050 Due to Lack of Funding

Saturday, 19 March 2016 - 6:03PM
Saturday, 19 March 2016 - 6:03PM
Andy Weir's The Martian (and it's subsequent big screen adaptation) has helped push Mars, Science and Space Exploration into the mainstream, captivating people of all ages since its release. Making science cool is something that Adam Savage knows well from years of hosting Discovery's Mythbusters show, so when the two geek icons came together at Silicon Valley Comic Con this weekend, it was no surprise to see a huge crowd in attendance. Weir and Savage were joined by Chris McKay, a planetary scientist out of NASA's Ames research center, as they discussed the future of Mars exploration, both human and robotic. Check out the highlights of the fascinating panel, below.

What if We Find Alien Life on Mars?

McKay kicked things off by posing the question of what would happen if we successfully discover life on Mars. Likening our search for alien life to a dog chasing a car, McKay says we've not started to consider the ramifications of discovering alien life of any form. Weir agreed, saying that if we find alien life on Mars it will be a big deal regardless, but if we find life on Mars that is truly alien – a second genesis–  it would be a HUGE deal. 

Were we to discover that Martian life is a second geneses, it would mean that life developed on Mars from a completely separate source from life on Earth. Weir claims that that discovery of second genesis life on Mars would provide near-conclusive evidence that life across the Universe is near-infinite. The discovery that life developed separately on two adjacent planets would give us the reasonable expectation that, if a planet orbits within a certain distance of its host star, it has the ability to host life. 

Weir and McKay's excitement over the possibility of second genesis life on Mars doesn't make the alternative option any less interesting, though. We we to eventually learn that life on Mars came from the same source as life on Earth, there would still be a lot to learn, it just wouldn't lead us to the potentially massive conclusion that life is widespread throughout the galaxy.

What should NASA do on a mission recognize life on a planetary body like Mars or Enceladus. How do we recognize life that isn't like anything we have on Earth. The fact is, NASA doesn't really have an answer just yet.

The Importance of Planetary Protection

Weir is a big proponent of Planetary Protection, which is the process of ensuring manned and robotic missions to other planetary bodies do not contaminate their destinations. Ensuring the sterility of the spacecraft and robots we send to the Moon, Mars, and other future destinations is an expensive process, though, and because of this Weir admits that it is a contentious issue in the industry. Many believe the added cost of ensuring sterility is simply not worth it, but Weir argues that Earth life could be invasive and end up taking over the Martian ecosphere, potentially ruining any insights we sent technology there to gather in the first place. Weir also argues that the probes we have sent are not sufficiently 'clean', but does concede that planetary protection will end up going out of the window when we eventually send humans there.

McKay, who is also pro-Planetary Protection says the process becomes even more important when it comes to terraforming a planet. McKay points out that, if we are to eventually opt to terraform Mars, we'll do so with one of two outcomes.

1. Terraforming to introduce Earth life, or...
2. Terraforming to grow the native Martian life.

McKay argues that a lack of planetary protection controls will limit our choice to option 1.

Mars or the Moon

While all the talk these days revolves around getting humans to Mars, both Weir and McKay believe that the Moon still has a crucial role to play in the success of extraterrestrial colonies. Both Weir and McKay agree that colonizing the Moon should come before we try and colonize Mars.
"If we can't do it on the Moon, we'll never be able to do it on Mars," says says McKay. But Savage pointed out that the Moon represents its own individual challenges for example. Mars's possesses better soil and an abundance of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, all of which make it more amenable to a colonization effort. But, although Mars is in many ways the better option for colonization, McKay and Weir agreed that they would feel more comfortable about creating a colony on Mars if we'd successfully created bases on the moon.

McKay claims that he moon's proximity to Earth makes it the ideal testing ground for the technologies we will need to place humans on the red planet. Because it's closer, it will cost less to test such technologies, and in this age of funding issues, that could be crucial.

When will we make it to Mars?

Last year saw conversations about Mars ramped up to a new level, not just because of the adaptation of Weir's book, but also because of the announcement of NASA's roadmap to landing humans on the planet. NASA claims they plan to have boots on the Martian ground by the year 2030, but Weir isn't so sure that will happen. The author said he was confident that, given the right funding, NASA could make it to Mars in their specified timeframes, but he doubts it will actually go to plan. Weir argued that the lack of faith and funding from Congress will hinder NASA's plan, pushing the realistic timelines back by at least 20 years to the 2050's.

To make it to Mars by 2050, Weir says we'll need a massive international effort, with NASA working with the likes of the European, Russian, and Japanese space agencies, and he even admits that this is going to be a far more complex mission than people are saying right now.

Equally important to the mission's success McKay says, is creating technologies that can drive the costs down. From 3D printing to improved life-support systems, McKay believes we are just around the corner from drastically reducing the cost of manned missions to other planetary bodies. Weir argued that, although such technologies will help, the key factor is reducing the cost of sending tech into orbit. Weir said that it currently costs around $2,000 per KG to do this, but argued that it needs to get much, much cheaper. If certain improvements are made, Weir believes we could take the cost of certain missions down from the 10s of billions of dollars to the 10s of millions, which would in turn encourage governments to start taking them seriously.

International Space Treaties

So, we get to Mars. Then what? The panel briefly discussed the importance of creating robust Space treaties and governance in advance of reaching the Red Planet. McKay and Weir outlined two clear models for an International presence on Mars, one of which is already in evidence in space right now. 

The International Space station presents one model of international cooperation in space, with different nations sharing the cost of missions and cohabiting in one given space. But McKay argues that there is a more preferable model going on right now in the Antarctic. There are currently a number of countries cooperating on research in the antarctic, sharing resources and research in a friendly manner just like we do with the ISS. The fundamental difference is, in the Antarctic, each country has its own slice of territory with which to call home. McKay sees this as a more viable option for Mars, with each nation receiving its own Martian territory, so long as they cooperate and help their neighbors. 

Why Do We Need to go to Mars?

With all this talk of going to Mars, it's often easy to forget why we should even be considering it in the first place. When Savage posed the question "Why should we go to Mars", McKay and Weir provided very different answers. 

McKay's answer, being the scientist he is, centered on the discovery of life. McKay sees finding evidence of past or present life on Mars as key to the furtherment of the human race. In McKay's view, answering the ultimate question of whether or not we're alone in the Universe will get a lot easier if we make it to Mars.

Weir's view was slightly more severe. Weir, like many other experts, believes that we as a species need to have permanent human settlement somewhere other than Earth to ensure our survival. Weir believes that we need to plan for an extinction level event such as an asteroid strike. Likening a colony on Mars to "backing up your hard drive", Weir's view of getting to Mars appears centered on merely playing the odds than satisfying curiosity.

Weir suggested that, if your only goal is to learn about Mars, then it's safer, cheaper, and more effective to just send robots. The only purpose to send humans to Mars is if we want to colonize it. However, he does admit that using the goal of Mars as a motivator for lowering the cost of space travel would have other effects. He claimed that, if you can lower the cost of space travel to the point where an average human can afford to venture into space, there will be a boom in the industry similar to the air travel boom of the 20th century, creating a whole new economy in the process.


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