Humans first emerged from Africa around 60,000 years ago in search of new lands to explore and colonize. Since then, we've spread out across much of the planet and even gone into low Earth orbit in the International Space Station. The need to explore new frontiers appears to be embedded in our DNA.
In April 2010, President Obama called for NASA to invest in research on an advanced rocket to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and then "eventually" to Mars. He did not give a specific timetable, unfortunately missing an opportunity to be as bold as President John F. Kennedy, who announced in 1961 that the United States would send an American to the moon by the end of the decade. Of course, President Kennedy's decision was motivated primarily by politics, not science. By 1961, the Soviet Union had already sent the first human into orbit. The United States needed to surpass the Russians in order to win the space race.
Today, Cold War politics aren't an issue. But there are still good reasons for the United States to press onward to Mars: The venture will satisfy that need to explore new frontiers, advance science and technology, and inspire the next generation. Most important, perhaps, it will promote global peace and cooperation, as nations work together to conquer the final frontier.
The challenge. Going to Mars won't be easy. Some argue that the United States has lost its ability to solve big world problems and that the political will that spawned earlier missions no longer exists. At its peak in the mid-1960s, NASA received 4 percent of the federal budget; the agency spent around $24 billion ($180 billion in today's dollars) on the manned moon missions. The Apollo program -- which ran from 1961 to 1975 and first put a man on the moon in 1969 -- pushed the boundaries of science, employed hundreds of thousands of people, and required the collaborative efforts of thousands of companies, universities, and government agencies.
Some argue that a manned Mars mission would be too dangerous and cost too much. We should be spending our limited national resources paying off the national debt and investing in infrastructure and education, they say.
And others argue that robots are already doing what humans would do on the red planet only much more cheaply. Indeed, the Mars rovers have been successful. They have sent back detailed images of the Martian surface. The Curiosity rover has been analyzing soil for signs of organic molecules. So far none has been detected, though the rover has found clear evidence that water was once present.
But while it's true that robots are relatively cheap because they don't require air, water, and food to survive on Mars and don't need to be brought back to Earth, this also makes them a missed technology-development opportunity. Robots may not need the kind of technology that humans would need to set up camp on Mars -- but humans back on Earth very much do. We need highly efficient energy and recycling systems if we're to have any chance of reversing climate change. Such technological advances would also produce economic gains, offsetting the cost of sending people to Mars. As Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, has said, "innovations in science and technology are the foundations of tomorrow's economy."
Some Mars enthusiasts aren't waiting. For example, Elon Musk, founder of the companies PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, has said he aims to put a man on Mars sometime in the next 20 years with a budget of less than $5 billion. And Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur, wants to send humans to Mars as part of a reality TV show.
Exploring New Frontiers. We tend to think of the Age of Exploration as the time between the 15th and 17th centuries, when European explorers such as Francis Drake and Ferdinand Magellan sailed around the world in search of new land and treasure. But in reality many peoples, including Polynesians around the year 400 and Vikings around 1000, sought new lands to colonize.
In more recent years, exploration was driven more by a spirit of adventure than for the need to conquer. In 1914, Earnest Shackleton placed an advertisement in a London newspaper seeking crew for his Antarctic expedition. "Men wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success." Almost 5,000 men responded; Shackleton selected 28 for his crew.
Around the same time, science fiction began to popularize the idea of interplanetary exploration. Early novels such as H.G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon and Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon sparked the dream of space travel. Later, television shows and movies like Star Trek and Star Wars fired the imaginations of millions of kids. Thousands of fans attend Star Trek conventions every year, more than 40 years after the series first aired. They yearn to be part of a cause greater than themselves. A mission to Mars could give them one.
Earthly gains. Our society wouldn't be the same today without the advances the Apollo missions made in computer hardware and software, robotics, nanotechnology, transportation, and other areas. A few of the tangible benefits from the combined scientific efforts of NASA and private industry include: improved fluid recycling technologies, better home insulation materials, improved water purification systems, better textiles for green buildings, and freeze-dried foods. A manned mission to Mars would require advances in energy and propulsion, food and water storage, waste disposal and recycling, radiation protection, bone mass preservation, and extreme weather survival. All of these technologies could benefit us on Earth, as we strive to reduce carbon emissions, limit pollution, and deal with an increasing number of extreme weather events.
Space science and exploration missions also promote peaceful international cooperation. In July 1975, America's Apollo and Russia's Soyuz docked while orbiting Earth; it was the first time that spacecraft from two different nations joined in a common mission. This breakthrough helped set the stage for construction of the International Space Station, and these collaborative space efforts in turn promoted positive relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and helped end the Cold War.
A manned mission to Mars would be an enormous and expensive undertaking, requiring the collaborative efforts of tens of thousands of people. The demands of the project should encourage nations to cooperate. Countries could contribute funds, brainpower, or manufacturing skills depending on their capabilities. Washington should bring Beijing in as a partner, rather than isolating it as a competitor.
Finally, a manned Mars mission could inspire the globe's next generation of scientists. NASA already has an annual space settlement competition for high school students, and in 2012, it received 474 submissions from 19 countries. The Romanian team that tied for first place, with a design for an Earth-orbiting settlement called Aurora, summed up why human space travel is so important to them: "By making this project we feel as taking part in something bigger than just our ordinary teenage life … we consider our generation responsible for transforming what close-minded people regard as a far fetched dream into reality." NASA or a private organization could launch new student competitions to design energy and recycling technologies for Mars.
Imagine if the world's leaders actually strove to turn the dreams of these high school contest winners into reality. Scientific exploration is one of the noblest of human endeavors; combining it with space travel excites the imagination like nothing else.