“To unambiguously settle the questions of whether there was life on Mars it will take scientists down on the surface.”
This is the quote that made me sit up and take notice during the European Lunar Symposium at the Museum a couple of weeks ago. It was said by NASA’s chief scientist, Dr Ellen Stofan, after making it clear that people on Mars is the agency’s primary mission.
They are going to Mars.
Her talk (coupled with tech talk by deputy chief technologist Jim Adams) was the kind of gung-ho inspiration that gave me just the jolt folk must have felt when we were racing to the Moon. First, bag an asteroid (literally), put it into orbit around the Moon, and go sample it, all with a view to testing technology and protocols for the trip to Mars.
The next week, I went to talk by Prof Sanjeev Gupta who is part of the scientific team choosing Curiosity’s destiny on Mars. He showed us some incredible pictures and results, all the evidence stacking up for flowing water, and stiller water capable of hosting life; but he also aptly demonstrated how much effort goes into controlling Curiosity (illustrated using audience members, a magnifying glass, a feather duster and a Super Soaker).
The agony of taking a day to choose, approve and code the intricate movements of an SUV-sized rover on another planet have me convinced: we do need people there. People can make decisions instantly, and get it done. Someone then posed me the question: what if private interests get there first? What if they do the science? As a public body, always taking longer to do things by committee, always under the hold of government purses, NASA could decide not to go.
Which brings me to the last of my trio of Mars talks: Sky At Night presenter and space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock. She discussed three eras of space exploration: Conflict (USA vs USSR), Collaboration (International Space Station) and now Commercialisation (Virgin Galactic, SpaceX).
Private interests appear to be the future of space flight. There are a plethora of companies racing to do everything from take people on a quick trip into orbit, to setting up a space hotel and settling the first colony on Mars. Aderin-Pocock is thrilled at the possibility, predicting in 30-50 years the price will crash like regular flying and we’ll all be ‘getting out there’ (I calculated – I should still be able to make it then).
I think NASA still has a place though. It may take longer, but they will do it right. But I do still hope for Aderin-Pocock’s vision of commercial space flight. For me, no official ‘mission’ is going to take a girl with a history of severe depression, but by the time I’m 60 hopefully I’ll have enough cash to buy my own ticket to the stars!