It’s fairly common to encounter friends, strangers — members of Congress — who are impressed by the latest space mission accomplishments, but in the next breath say, “What’s the point anyway?”
I’m sure this has been a question posed throughout the ages about any and every exploration quest whether it was climbing the nearest mountain, venturing across the seas or launching into space. The latest scientific and engineering achievement that captured public attention is the successful arrival of NASA’s InSight Mars Lander. It took several years to develop, nearly seven months to get there, and cost us $850 million. It’s a big deal for several important reasons, and worth all we’ve put into it.
Mars is the next-door neighbor to our little oasis we call Earth. On a really good day every few years we’re about 35 million miles away when the planets are aligned. That sounds far, but it feels like the next town over when you realize our little solar system is about 2.8 billion miles from the Sun to Neptune, the “last planet” (ever since Pluto got kicked out of the line up.) Compared to the vastness of our galaxy and universe, Mars seems as close as throwing a rock to the other side of a creek.
As close as that smaller planet is to ours, it’s a vastly different place — thin atmosphere, brutally cold temperatures all the time, unforgiving terrain and regular hellacious storms. It’s a nasty destination and inhospitable.
So why go at all? Perhaps most important, the first reason is to figure out what happened there. The terrain and geological formations are strikingly similar to ours, but something drastically changed in the comparatively recent past. Out interest in Mars stems from the same curiosity we exhibit to find out why the town right over the county line burned down.
The InSight vehicle is designed to examine the Mars interior — its core and crust — to learn how the planetary formations may have been different from ours and look for evidence of seismic or other events that may explain its hellish reality today.
The next question to be answered will be if whatever happened there could happen here. Some believe we need to go there to probe the evidence of life. Three golf cart-sized roving machines that landed there over the past decade have methodically demonstrated that all the ingredients that are essential for life to form are on Mars.
Still others believe there are markets to be developed, opportunities to be explored and venture to be pursued — and spending a lot of their own money to find out. In short there appear to be several interesting reasons to pursue this.
But why not just let the machines do it? The technology to send probes, develop artificial intelligence and build robots to answer any of these questions seems to have arrived. The chance to leverage technology to blaze the trail and understand what lies ahead reduces the risk to humans. It also opens subsequent opportunities for people to experience exploration and employ our unique skills, instincts and intuitive capacity to make decisions. Machines are stepping stones to help us understand what we are getting into and how we should prepare for it.
The late, great courageous explorer Neil Armstrong once described his experience listening to a team of lunar scientists debate whether the Apollo 11 mission would result in a one-way trip to the Moon. The fear was the legs of the lunar lander module Eagle would be subject to a magnetic reaction such that significant volumes of lunar dust would adhere to the lander’s legs adding so much weight that Eagle would be incapable of taking off to rejoin the command module Columbia circling the Moon and make the trip back to Earth safely.
After several days of witnessing the endless debate, Armstrong told the lunar experts that he’d let them know how it turned out when he got back. The upshot of that story was that we knew only a fraction of what we wanted to know before accelerating the Apollo program more than 50 years ago.
InSight is the eighth successful NASA mission to Mars. When you count all the missions from NASA and our spacefaring partners around our globe, many more previous missions never made it or ended up as very expensive craters. Today’s technology gives us the means to minimize human risk of space ventures by having a much better idea what we’re likely to encounter and the ability to have a much better plan of what we can do when people do arrive. InSight will add to our trove of knowledge that will significantly improve our chances for success. We have a long way to go to develop in-space propulsion to cut down the time to get anywhere. We also need to keep improving our capacity to protect humans from the harsh conditions of space during transit, however long the trip may be. NASA is making great progress to work through both challenges and others that will make such journeys possible.
Some argue that machines will eventually become as instinctive and intuitive as we are. Perhaps. But a machine will never be able to test the proposition that we’re alone in this vast universe. That’s reason enough for us all.
Sean O’Keefe is a professor at the Syracuse University Maxwell School and the Phanstiel Chair in Strategic Management & Leadership. Among other posts, he previously served as NASA's administrator during the George W. Bush administration.