Professor Martin Barstow, Department of Physics and Engineering, University of Leicester:
It is now more than 40 years since men first landed on the Moon. In the technologically optimistic age of the late 1960s, the next obvious step seemed to be a mission to Mars within a few decades and certainly before the end of the century. Yet, as we move into 2011 the goal seems as far away as ever. To achieve it will require a large financial investment in the space hardware and, while the US has made several attempts to start this development, it always seems to stall in face of the financial realities. Most recently, NASA cancelled its planned launcher developments for future human space flight.
It seems timely, particularly in the current economic climate, to re-visit the question “Should Humans Go to Mars?” I believe we should and we should start planning now. The timescales for this are several decades and will span several economic cycles. So, we need to take an approach that makes the process of living and working in space economy-proof. That requires much more international collaboration and robust agreements that ensure continuity of the effort. It will also be necessary to explore more innovative, lower cost systems to make the effort affordable.
So why should we do this and what are the benefits? Although robotic exploration of Mars and the rest of the Solar System has been extremely productive and instruments become ever more sophisticated, we are a long way from being able to match the flexible processing power of the human brain. Fully exploring Mars and searching for evidence of life on the planet will require a combination of human and robotic capabilities. Decades of space research and exploration involving both humans and robots have led to the development of a space infrastructure that is now of considerable benefit to humanity. Communications, navigation and global monitoring are just some of the facets that we could not live without. It has also led to a significant global space industry that drives technological development and delivers an impressive economic return. Further investment in Human exploration will create even more, perhaps as yet unforeseen, opportunities.
Professor Martin Barstow is Pro-Vice Chancellor, Head of the College of Science and Engineering, Professor of Astrophysics and Space Science at the University of Leicester.
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