Looks Can Be Deceiving

By Richard (Rick) Davis and Bob Collom

It’s funny, actually. The above panorama, courtesy of the Curiosity Rover, makes Mars look like a desert in Arizona, somewhere hot and rocky but habitable. But, Mars isn’t like any desert in Arizona. Mars has more in common with the summit of K21. It might look sunny, but the temperature sits around 32°F at midday and gets down to -110°F at night2. There is an atmosphere, but it’s impossible to breathe due to the fact that it’s 96% Carbon Dioxide with only 1% the density of the atmosphere on Earth. By comparison even the top of K2 averages 19°F during the day and 0°F at night and still has 33% of the atmospheric density as compared to sea level.

We will learn to master this terrain. But, these panoramas can trick us; they can make it look like the surface of Mars is safer than being in space. In truth, however, humans have been living in space for decades, and have learned how to do so safely. We have never tried to live on another planet. If there was a rule for Low Earth orbit missions it would be, “space is dangerous; the surface is safe.” We need to be careful not to get stuck in a paradigm and assume the same rule applies to Mars. We need to look at this panorama and see past the beautiful, Earth-like landscapes, to the challenges that underlie them. Mars is nowhere near as safe as the amazing planet that we call home!

These misconceptions are exciting for me. They point to all of the mysteries that still need to be uncovered and all of the technology we need to develop. We will need to practice and learn before we know as much about living on Mars as we do living in space. It strongly suggests that we will need to incrementally step our way to permanent presence on Mars—with orbital missions coming first, followed by short and then increasingly longer stays on this new planet. Even this step wise approach will be incredibly challenging as we learn to overcome the challenges that Mars poses, but if becoming a multi-planetary species was easy, it wouldn’t be fun!

[1] The second tallest mountain on planet Earth and the hardest mountain to climb
[2] Based on air temperature data from the Curiosity rover in Gale crater taken over the course of 200 sols

Mars is Closer Than You Think

By Richard (Rick) Davis and Bob Collom

What qualifies as a challenge for a society evolves as the society evolves. The frontier has moved beyond the west, beyond the surface of the Earth, and beyond the Moon. Our frontier is at Mars. What took Roald Amundsen a lifetime of effort can be replicated in a matter of days now. What took Lewis and Clark more than 2 years can be accomplished in a matter of hours. These things are easy today, they are not a challenge, and they do not inspire. It will not be easy to traverse the expanse of space and land on an entirely new planet, but exploration is not about doing what is easy.

On May 25, 1961, when Kennedy first said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” humanity was only taking its first steps into the frontier of space. Only two people had left the Earth for a cumulative time in space of just over two hours, and yet Kennedy and a nascent NASA proclaimed that America could put an astronaut on the Moon. Fast-forward to today, humanity has spent more than 50,000 days in space, launched thousands of rockets and hundreds of astronauts, developed supercomputers millions of times more powerful than those of 1961, and visited every major body in our solar system. Mars may be 200 times farther than the Moon at closest approach, but we may be thousands of times more prepared to achieve this.

Mars is a destination that compels and inspires. To quote a recent college student and an aspiring Mars explorer, “The first person to walk on the moon didn’t happen in my life time but I would love to be a part of the first humans on Mars.” This energy will propel humanity beyond the confines of the Earth and out into the Solar System. From the Mercury Program to the Curiosity rover, we have been preparing to send humans to Mars for 60 years.

The following table underscores how much our capabilities have grown since 1961:

The following tables outline more detailed areas of comparison:


[1] The date of JFK’s speech before a joint session of Congress in which he committed the nation to landing a person on the Moon
[2] Includes Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard’s flights
[3] Compiled from astronaut, cosmonaut, taikonaut, and space tourist biographies
[4] Alan Shepard’s May 5, 1961 Mercury-Redstone 3 flight
[5] Achieved by Pioneer V on June 26, 1960
[6] Achieved by Voyager 1 as of August 4, 2017
[7] From the historians at the Museum of Computer History
[8] Floating Point Operations Per Second
[9] Includes Vanguard 1, Vanguard 2, Explorer 7, Transit 2A, Solrad 1, Echo 1, Explorer 9, Discoverer 20, Discoverer 21, Discoverer 23, and Explorer 11
[10] Includes active solar system probes. Taken from: http://celestrak.com/satcat/boxscore.asp
[11] Includes Russian, US, and Chinese crewed launches
[12] Includes ESA member nations
[13] Starting on Oct. 31 2000 with ISS expedition 1
[14] Average perigee for Moon and Mars from: https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/factsheet/moonfact.html and the calculations of Ryan Woolley
[15] His journey from Ft Niagara to the mouth of the Mississippi that claimed much of what became the Louisiana Purchase
[16] Crew Perished on return journey
[17] Adjusted for inflation to 2016 dollars
[18] Adjusted for inflation to 2016 dollars