Omar Bekdash ‘18, Junior Columnist

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A century ago, when Percival Lowell peered into his telescope, he described huge striations crisscrossing the surface of Mars. The wealthy American businessman-turned-astronomer was, by all accounts, obsessed.

He spent his whole life (and nearly all of his fortune) trying to prove that those lines were actually the workings of a highly intelligent race, irrigating the dying planet with a system of canals that collected water from its ice caps. In this groundless speculation laid not facts, but rather Lowell’s own dreams that something of importance hid on the planet with which he had fallen in love. Fueling this speculation, Lowell unknowingly sowed the seeds for mass hysteria.

His “cosmic mythology” hit a climax when millions of fans were mistakenly believed the fictional plot of radio drama The War of the Worlds, whose storyline depicted a Martian invasion. Fortunately, Martians did not end up invading New Jersey, or Basking Ridge, for that matter, which played a role in the show. Eventually, Lowell’s “canals” were written off as optical illusion mixed with biased imagination, crushing the hopes of the first generation of excited Mars theorists.

Even as wilder theories died down, the excitement and mystery shrouding Mars continued during the space race. Satellites orbiting Mars established the planet did indeed have ice caps, canyons, volcanoes, seasonal fluctuations, and Earth-like weather patterns. This all suggested that liquid water had played a role on Mars. And so the rover missions began. After each failed attempt by the Soviet Union and the United States to land a rover on Mars, public interest grew.

Finally in 1997, the Sojourner, the first successful rover, landed on Mars. In its brief, 85-day life, it revealed an inhospitable, desolate world totally devoid of life. As the readings trickled in, it became clear that an Earth-like world capable of supporting a master race was nowhere to be found. Mars’ wispy carbon-dioxide atmosphere, one-hundredth the thickness of Earth’s, could never allow liquid water to form. Under this scant atmosphere, temperatures fluctuated hundreds of degrees within hours. With no protective ozone layer or magnetic field, Mars baked in deadly radiation from the sun. Other, more functional rovers sent by NASA in the 21st century, like Curiosity or Opportunity, have told the same story since. Though the rovers have established that liquid water, an ingredient essential to life, once existed on Mars, it is clear that the condition does not hold true today. Again, many hopefuls, I included, were let down.

Yet the allure of Mars is difficult to write off. Exploration continues. Countries like India and China are launching their own ambitious rover expeditions with stunning triumph. And with every successful Mars landing, we Americans cheer with our nerdy heroes in NASA’s mission control. But there are daunting hurdles to figuring out what Mars has to offer.

As cute and amazing as our beloved rovers can be, they are slow, faulty, and extremely limited. Whether nuclear or solar-powered, rovers move at the painfully slow pace of 0.1 miles per hour. Sometimes they get stuck. Sometimes their vital “organs” fail in the face of extremely cold temperatures. Sometimes massive dust storms consuming Mars interfere with their electronics. Even in optimal conditions, relaying information to and from a rover can take hours. Mars rovers have done a lot, but they have hit a ceiling. Many, especially me, call for a massive, unprecedented, manned mission to finally unlock the secrets of the red planet.

Billionaire Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, a rocket company, has an ambitious, daring, and possibly impossible plan. He has made it SpaceX’s goal to land a team on Mars by 2024, even in the face of limited budgets and controversy over his rockets, one of which exploded last September. Envisioning massive rockets shipping teams of hundreds of bold travelers to and from Mars by the week, Musk anticipates the full colonization of Mars.

But the challenges are beyond daunting. Operational costs run in the tens of billions of dollars, far beyond anyone’s budget. Aside from logistical hurdles lies the biggest and baddest barrier of all: the tens of millions of miles of deep space that separate Mars from Earth. And make no mistake: the road to Mars is long and dangerous.

Daanyal Farooqi ’17, whose forensics speech focuses on Mars, explains that besides the perils of asteroids and malnourishment, silent killers also exist: “Unseen problems might be even worse. Weightlessness experienced in space and on Mars could lead to bone deterioration. Cosmic rays, which are invisible particles traveling near the speed of light, can cause cancer. These are very difficult and untested problems, and the likelihood that these problems will occur is high when considering the duration of the trip, about three years.”

With countless forces working against us, is it wise to spend so much money exploring Mars? Is it safe to send a team of humans out there, in the deep, on a treacherous planet so far from home?

In the room of my AP Physics teacher, Mr. Blackman, there lies an interesting map of Mars detailing fictional oceans and plains that would appear once humans have colonized and terraformed the planet for habitability. Mr. Blackman, a fellow Mars enthusiast, oftentimes excitedly reminds my class of developments in Elon Musk’s vision. When questioned for his opinion on whether a gargantuan manned-mission is possible, or, indeed, worth it, he definitively declared, “I think we’ll find the future of the human race! Beyond the need that humans become a multiplanetary species (in case something happens to Earth), I think that it would be a defining achievement for humanity.” I definitely agree with him. If Neil Armstrong’s ascent to the moon was a “big leap” for man, then a Mars mission would qualify as an Olympic long jump.

Although I am a fierce advocate for a Mars mission, I acknowledge the many hurdles ahead of us. The problems Farooqi spelled out earlier will not disappear. So I asked Mr. Blackman, Is a Mars mission possible in the near future?

Immediately, he responded, “The next wave of space exploration will be a collaborative effort between space agencies and private companies, unlike the space race, which had a political element. This will, I think, enable us to expand our capabilities to get to Mars within the next few decades. As for Elon Musk, I don’t think he can get there by 2024, but I certainly believe that he’s getting us to talk about a Mars mission seriously.”

Ms. Musumeci, another AP Physics teacher, warns, however, “As we enter a new digital and social media age, progress and results are expected to occur quickly and for selfish reasons.” She fears that the trend of self-gratification in today’s society could stymie a long-term scientific project lacking clear, immediate benefits.

The red planet beckons. Is the journey, with all of its complications, quagmires, and controversies worth it? Perhaps. Do the rusty soils of that foreign land hold any promise? Possibly. I nonetheless see great things if we follow the dreams Lowell sought out a century ago. We may find water lurking at the depths of Mars’ deepest canyons. We may find the remnants of ages-old microbes. Or we simply run into our own wild, wonderful imaginations and feel an unimaginable sense of pride. The costs will be high. The journey will be long. But the red planet beckons.










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