Should Mars still be the horizon goal of human spaceflight?

mars colony

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED DEC 2015—Much has changed socioeconomically since the mid-20th century and the Apollo era of space exploration. Surveys and engagement projects worldwide reveal that interest in human spaceflight (HSF) and space exploration has waned amongst the younger generations to whom many of the imperatives that drove the cold war space race (1955-1972)—such as national prestige and political hegemony—seem no longer as pertinent (Ottavianelli and Good, 2003; Safwat et al., 2006; Jones, et al. 2007). Yet despite growing public scepticism, and the apparent knowledge deficit regarding HSF (Millar, 2010), the space exploration community persists in accepting axiomatically that the core goal of HSF is to explore Mars (Sherwood, 2012), and that public support for this trajectory is a given—a trajectory that would cost the public upwards of $1011 over a multi decadal time period (Sherwood, 2011).

So accepted and reflexive are these assumptions that, until recent years, they’ve propagated unabatedly. The USA National Research Council (2014) even went so far as to say that the continued risks associated with funding HSF were only justified by setting “a horizon goal” of putting humans on Mars. In so doing, they framed the very goal of achieving HSF to Mars as a justification in of itself, causing growing voices within the HSF community to question the veracity of such a claim, and to highlight the weaknesses of the self-evidential argument by offering cheaper and more viable future alternatives for HSF that better meet the needs and expectations of the protean generations that will pay for, and carry out, future HSF (Sherwood, 2013).

Yet despite dissenting voices, NASA and ESA are both pushing forward with plans for Martian HSF missions (ESA, 2012; Whitwam, 2015). As such, there is increasing realisation amongst Mars advocates that, in order to achieve the sustainable public and political support required reach their goal, a considered effort is required to engage the public and manipulate opinion to their advantage in order to answer their critics and win funding over alternative scientific endeavours (Explore Mars, Inc. 2015b).

Via the lens of Explore Mars, Inc. (EMI)—a US, non-profit, advocacy group aimed at promoting, and galvanising stakeholder and public support for, a Martian HSF mission by the 2030s—this paper will explore the growing controversy of whether a Martian horizon goal should necessarily be the ultimate aim of HSF.  This paper will review some of the main criticisms of EMI and their goal, focussing on the arguments of Brent Sherwood—a renowned space architect working for NASA’s

federally funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Context will be afforded to the controversy by outlining the rationale of EMI for meeting their primary goal, and the criticisms thereof. This paper will then review the assertion of public support for Martian HSF put forth by EMI, and purportedly legitimised by their Mars Generation (MG) poll (2013a).

Rationale: To Launch or Not to Launch?

The rationale for setting the Martian HSF goal is arguably the most important element of this controversy.  Any justification seeks to provide the principle philosophical foundations upon which all other ancillary arguments—architecture, cost, risk, public backing of mission—are built upon. It is for stakeholders on all sides of this controversy to provide valid reasons for launching, or not launching, a Martian HSF mission. It must further be their goal to communicate those reasons to policy makers, and the public at large, if their ultimate aim is to be achieved (Explore Mars, Inc., 2015b).

The virtues of exploratory space science in general, as communicated to the public by science popularisers, are often parasitic upon nebulous concepts of human exceptionalism; wanderlust; national prestige; supposed economic benefits; and the assumption that the public unquestionably revere the hero myth that shrouds adventurous pioneers, and see such feats as eventual human colonization of other planets as a natural evolution to the human state (see: Cox, 2010; Aldrin, 2013; De Grasse Tyson, 2015).

Similarly, advocates of a Martian HSF goal often frame this trajectory as requiring little to no justification other than referencing hazy aspira-tional motivations involving hypothetical technological advancements, possible scientific revelations, and un-evidenced socioeconomic imperatives that such missions would satisfy, including an apparent communal unity brought about through a shared experience (Sadeh, 2001; Sherwood, 2013).

“We choose to go to space not just to inspire a nation, we go to space because its exploration is critical for prosperity—economic, social and cultural. And Mars is the new, new world.” (Explore Mars, Inc., 2013b)

EMIs rationales for a Martian HSF goal embody the aforementioned forms of argument, as the above quote demonstrates. It should be noted that nowhere on EMI’s main website (2015), or their readily available public literature, are any of the above quoted claims expanded upon or evidenced, either by academic study or even expert opinion evidence. This provides an example of EMI’s goal rationales being generally more implicit rather than overtly expressed. They demonstrate a reliance upon the perceived grandeur of HSF, and interplanetary exploration, to snare the imagination of the public and policy makers rather than offering didactic and empirical arguments.

“At a minimum the human space flight advocacy community should address the pragmatics of choosing such a vulnerable goal.”  (Sherwood, 2012)

Sherwood (2012) argues that Mars advocates suppose rewards that are difficult to evidentially support, and that it is “impossible to develop a reliable comparison of the returns from HSF versus other research and development programs.” Sherwood (2011) illuminates the availability of alternative options for future HSF that offer safer, more affordable, more achievable outcomes that would be equally or more beneficial to the wider public—and future publics—than sending six civil servants to stand on Mars. In doing so, Sherwood (2011) offers a simple framework proposed as a way to support productive dialogue with the public and stakeholders to determine a sustainable and mutual value proposition for future HSF.

Proposed alternatives include: settling the Moon instead, resulting in upwards of 103 humans colonising an off world facility; accelerating space passenger travel options, resulting in 103 crew and 105 civilians per year being afforded the opportunity to experience HSF; or enabling space solar power systems for heavy lift launch capabilities from Earth to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which could serve to accelerate space technology towards a renewable and sustainable future, whilst at the same time offering 102 skilled workers the opportunity to complete extended tours in LEO. Sherwood (2011) further points out the cost effective and substantially cheaper role that robots and drones fulfil, negating the need for costly and life threatening interplanetary HSF missions.

In offering alternatives that could prove more accessible, achieve or exceed EMI’s value proposition, and produce similar proposed socioeconomic benefits, Sherwood seeks to undermine the viability of EMI’s goal and the assumption that Mars must necessarily be the horizon goal of HSF.

And the Survey Says…

“May this [MG Poll] be a call to action, a validation that the American public is still committed to doing great and noble things, ‘not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ Americans are united in confidence and spirit that men and women will walk on Mars within their lifetime.” (Explore Mars, Inc., 2013a)

In order to gather the political and societal momentum required to reach their end goal, EMI have attempted to legitimise their cause via numerous public engagement events including affordability and sustainability workshops (2013a; 2014), science cafes, and the Humans to Mars Summit (2015c)—an annual event organised by EMI and including keynote engagements from celebrity science popularisers such as Buzz Aldrin and Bill Nye. But perhaps EMI’s most significant attempt at public engagement came in 2013 with the publication of their much cited MG poll (1,101 respondents)—the results of which conveniently buttress EMI’s rationale to reach its end goal by asserting that the American public “are highly enthusiastic about space exploration—particularly to Mars”.

Amongst the apparent findings of this poll were that 71% of Americans believe that humans will land on Mars by the year 2033, and 75% believe that NASA’s budget should be doubled to 1% of the federal budget to fund initiatives, including a mission to Mars. Critics might well point out that what 782 lay respondents believe will happen regarding future HSF operations doesn’t necessarily have any effect whatsoever on the achievability of those outcomes. As Sherwood (2013) points out, evidence suggests that the public may not be well informed about the technological challenges and risks involved in getting such a mission off the ground.

At their most cynical, such surveys—paid for and conducted by the organisations that seek to benefit from the results—might serve to undermine the legitimacy and benefits of other public engagement strategies by proving little more than the controlling organisation’s recognising the need to present public support for their campaign, and having the money to portray a consensus (Wilsdon and Willis, 2004; Jones, 2014). EMI have indeed cited the results of their MG Poll in the majority of their published literature as a way of validating their cause, despite similar independent surveys (Launius, 2003) conversely finding that, at recent junctures, more Americans opposed funding a Martian HSF mission than were in favour of it.

Sherwood (2011) proposes that the wider public be given the opportunity to determine the trajectory of HSF by means of upstream public engagement processes whereby publics and stakeholders alike are made aware of options and challenges facing HSF. He points out that, since Apollo, the HSF community have failed to incorporate public priorities and opinions into their value propositions, instead defining their objectives (such as EMI defining its manned Mars mission objective) and retrospectively seeking stakeholder support for it (such as the MG poll). Sherwood (2011) points out that this method has so far produced only “unsatisfying results”, citing the numerous failures to as yet garner any political, stakeholder, or public consensus regarding the future of HSF, let alone a manned Mars mission.


EMI and other such American advocacy groups are often formed of, and perpetuate the views of, generations that lived through the Apollo “space age” and, as such, conceptualize HSF significantly differently from the generations that will have to fund and carry out future HSF missions. As Sherwood and other commentators point out, it is no longer sufficient to assume public support for a Martian HSF mission based solely on the outdated value systems that saw Mars as the next logical step for HSF following the Moon landings.

If EMI and the like are to achieve their goals, they will need to engage with the new publics in their new geopolitical contexts and communicate substantive arguments to yield significant and sustainable support. As illustrated in this paper, EMI’s current efforts seem aimed solely at legitimizing their pre-held biases rather than seeking upstream contributions from the people to whom the burden of achieving EMI’s objective will necessarily fall. In light of there being no clear timeframe to reach said goal, the considerable technological hurdles involved, and the fluid nature of public support over multiple generations, the task ahead for EMI is daunting.

However EMI’s extensive efforts to engage with the public and stakeholders to reach their final aim far outweighs any attempt by Sherwood and the like to communicate the risks and alternatives to any audience wider than their field-specific academic circles. But the onus is not yet on Sherwood. The onus is firmly upon the advocacy groups to overcome the manifest, multiple, and monumental hurdles to their final goal. And if EMI did raise the awareness, funding, multinational public and political drive, and were able to maintain it over a multi decadal time period, despite any number of unforeseen future imperatives imposing upon the viability and importance of reaching such a goal, it would surely be the greatest feat of public engagement by a scientific community yet seen.

In the meantime, as multinational governmental organisations creep cautiously towards the horizon goal of Martian HSF—spending billions in public funds—we can expect this controversy to move further into the public realm.


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