Speaking at Kennedy Space Center last month, President Obama tried to reassure critics that the administration’s new, scaled-back plans for NASA won’t constitute a deathblow for manned space exploration.

“By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth,” Obama said. “And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

Critics such as Dr. Robert Zubrin identify a marked difference in tone between this speech and President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “We choose to go to the moon” speech. Zubrin is the founder of the Mars Society, an international association committed to furthering the goal of exploration and settlement of Mars.

WIDE ANGLE: Exploiting Mars — Mars is a planet ripe for exploration by mankind. Or is it?

“I have to say that I was very disappointed with President Obama’s speech, which claimed a nominal goal of sending humans to Mars but put it so far in the future that he doesn’t have to do anything real toward achieving it,” Zubrin says. “Mars is the right goal, but it needs to be a goal, not a dream.”

Why should Mars be a goal? And how can humans benefit from exploring it?

Pushing the Frontier

For Dr. Adrian Brown, a SETI planetary scientist searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, the most obvious benefit of Mars exploration is the advancement of science.

“In trying to reach out to the next frontier, we always have to reach out to the limits of our technology,” Brown says. “Just consider the Age of Discovery. We wouldn’t have invented such precise timekeeping and navigational technology if we didn’t need to in order to cross huge expanses of ocean to reach frontiers in Asia, Africa and the New World.”

In other words, to satisfy our human thirst for exploration, we’ll have to push technology even further. In the same way that the 20th century space race gave us such innovations as long-distance telecommunications and water filters, the technologies we develop for Mars will affect life on Earth.

“It’s also a challenge that would encourage millions of young people to go into science and engineering,” Zubrin says. “If they develop their minds and learn their science, they have the prospect of taking part in exploring and pioneering a new world. Society would benefit tremendously from that.”

In addition, the exploration and eventual colonization of Mars would give humanity the foothold we need to spread to other worlds — a move that cosmologists such as Stephen Hawking identify as a crucial step in the long-term survival of the human race.

Rosetta Stone

The red planet is far more than just a catalyst for scientific change or an interplanetary base camp. Mars, says Zubrin, is essentially a Rosetta stone for determining the prevalence and diversity of life in the universe.

After all, Mars once boasted liquid water in great abundance — and water is a crucial component for life. According to Zubrin, if life is indeed a natural, chemical development wherever liquid water, reasonable temperatures and various minerals occur, then why shouldn’t it appear on Mars?

“If we can go to Mars and find evidence of past life, then we will have proven that the development of life from chemistry is a general phenomenon in the universe,” Zubrin says.

Such a discovery would change the way we look at the night sky. Every exoplanet positioned appropriately to its central star would be a potential hot spot for extraterrestrial life.

“If life will develop wherever it has a decent planet, it means that the universe is filled with life,” Zubrin says, “And if life is everywhere, it means intelligence is everywhere. It means we’re living in an inhabited universe. This is something that thinking men and women have wondered about for thousands of years, and we can find out the answer to this if by going to Mars.”

Getting there, however, is going to take some serious commitment.

Three Weeks of War

“We’ve sent our first envoys, our robotic precursors to the red planet and gotten a taste of what it might be like to live there,” Brown says. “But at the moment we’re not prepared. Politically, we’re not prepared.”

Brown points out that Obama’s reluctance to provide a firm Mars exploration time table reflects more than just the current state of the U.S. economy, but the lack of public enthusiasm and appreciation for manned Mars exploration.

“NASA’s proposed budget for 2011 is $19 billion,” Brown says. “That’s about three weeks of the war in Iraq. So if we want to make sending humans to Mars a priority, it’s merely a matter of political will. It’s not a budgetary concern if all your constituents want it. We’ve just got to make sure that human exploration of Mars is an important subject for the American people.”

Read “Terraforming Mars for the Greater Good” for Robert Zubrin’s thoughts on interplanetary ethics.

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