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Headshot of Bill Nye - Updated

The Goal is Mars

Posted by Bill Nye

10-07-2013 24:18 CDT

Topics: Bill Nye, Planetary Society Political Advocacy

Today, The Planetary Society submitted our white paper to the National Research Council's call for "input" on human spaceflight. It's derived from work we did back in 2008 brought up to date. As you may know, I and my colleagues feel strongly that Mars is the next place for humans. We have to send people there to have a look around. Who knows what we'll discover? It will bring out the best in us. I believe exploring that world will change this one.

Please read the white paper, and let us know how you feel.

The Goal is Mars
The Planetary Society’s Submission to the National Research Council
On Human Spaceflight

The Planetary Society strongly supports human exploration of space. The planet Mars is the goal. There, humans will explore efficiently and make discoveries that would utterly change the world. While our robotic missions accomplish remarkable and often astonishing things on Mars, they are precursors in exploration. Astronaut researchers on Mars will make discoveries and create stories that will be shared by all humankind for generations to come.

In 2008, The Planetary Society and Stanford University convened a workshop to examine the future of human spaceflight. The workshop brought together nearly 50 experts, including scientists, former NASA officials and astronauts, industry executives, and space policy specialists for a frank discussion about human spaceflight and our priorities in space. Among the conclusions of this group was that “the purpose of sustained human exploration is to go to Mars and beyond, and that a series of intermediate destinations, each with its own intrinsic value, should be established as steps toward that goal.” Although some of the details have changed over the last five years, the core principles and recommendations outlined in The Planetary Society's report, Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration in the 21st Century still apply in 2013.

The Benefits of Human Spaceflight are Incalculable
Countries with space programs have stronger economies, because of the innovations that space missions inherently require, because of the teamwork and organizational structure that must be brought to bear on solving problems that have never been solved before, and because space exploration simply brings out the best in workers and society. With all that, when humans are flying in space, organizations sharpen their focus and do their very best work to support their comrades -- fellow citizens of Earth. It is a unique and especially productive use of a society’s intellect and treasure.

The effect of humans in space is obvious when one compares the public’s response to human achievements on the Moon with the achievements of robotic missions, which may have accomplished somewhat more scientifically but with enormously less inspiration. The Soviet Union’s space agency was the first to land a spacecraft softly on the Moon and to drive a rover across its surface. It was the first agency to photograph the far side of the Moon. They accomplished the first robotic sample return mission from another world. They put spacecraft in the atmosphere and on the surface of Venus. Nevertheless, it was the Apollo human landings that changed the world. The exploits of the astronauts are writ larger on the pages of history, because the human stories are so compelling for us.

While the robotic planetary science program accomplishes remarkable and often astonishing things, there is a great deal more waiting to be learned by sending people to Mars. When an astronaut is engaged, the whole world is engaged. NASA’s Curiosity landing was watched by millions of people around the world. A human mission will be watched by billions. When we explore Mars, two remarkable things will happen: we will make discoveries that require the unique skills and capabilities of the human brain, but we will also have an adventure. People everywhere will share in both.

Keeping humans in space is the ultimate expression of an advanced civilization. Not only does it require heavy and constant investment in technology, engineering capability, and industry, it demands cooperation by tens of thousands of people in a complex hierarchy. The sheer complexity of the mission binds people together peacefully, both at home and abroad.

Few endeavors elicit so much pride, inspiration, and optimism. Astronauts inspire countless millions of people to pursue careers in high technology, engineering, and science. While robotic spacecraft can be anthropomorphized in their adventures, human astronauts need no such conceptual leap. They represent the best in us as they push the boundaries of our species farther into space.

The greatest threat to the human spaceflight program is the lack of a clear goal.
We live in a truly remarkable time technologically, where nothing prevents humans from exploring Mars or other targets save for our own decisions not to do so. If a plan were created that united our government and the space community, we could pursue a truly adventurous, exceptional program of human exploration that would span decades. This is not unprecedented.  Both the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle programs garnered the political and financial commitment to sustain them for many years.
Without a clear goal to guide NASA, the Administration, Congress, and the aerospace community, the human spaceflight program is subject to swings in focus, leading to funding cuts, inefficient spending, and ultimately the dwindling of public support. Continued division could doom the endeavor.

With Mars as the clear goal, space agencies around the world – and NASA especially – will be able to streamline their efforts. Space exploration will become more efficient. Present and future lawmakers will not need to spend time, effort, or energy proposing human missions to destinations that are not consistent with the goal of successfully landing humans on Mars.

The Planetary Society published Beyond the Moon five years ago. We stand by those recommendations today. It is in our best interest to develop an exploration architecture whose ultimate goal is to enable the human exploration of Mars. This architecture should incorporate new, culturally significant scientific achievements as steps toward Mars, including the following:

  • The first human voyages beyond the Earth-Moon system
  • The first human voyages beyond the gravitational influence of Earth
  • The first human voyages to another planet, culminating with a Mars landing and safe return to Earth

Landing on Mars is a challenging endeavor that must be recognized and planned as a multi-decade program with clear milestones, stable funding, and sustained national commitment. Current implementation of the program has lacked these essential elements.

What If We Do Not Accept the Challenge of Human Spaceflight?
The ramifications of not accepting the challenge human exploration of space – particularly Mars – are troubling. It is the key to our nation’s future in innovation. If we terminate or curtail human spaceflight, we are condemning our progeny to live their lives with less. Other countries with robust space agencies will find themselves leading the world in innovations and technology. Their superior economies will outperform that of the U.S.

There are the deep and important cultural implications if we don’t explore. What does it say about a society that forever looks down at its feet? Worse yet, what does it say of a society that looks down knowing full well that it could look up and out, yet chooses not to? Are we prepared to be the first generation to declare exploration to be more trouble than it’s worth? How do we explain to our progeny that we just decided to stop?
Science, exploration, and technology are inseparable. One leads to the other. Science is a beneficiary of human spaceflight but it is not the primary motivation. Many of the great human explorations of the past -- including the Apollo missions to the Moon -- were undertaken primarily for cultural or political reasons but still resulted in revolutionary scientific advances and new capabilities. Countless discoveries will remain unknown if we walk away from human space exploration.
We should all acknowledge that if we were to discover evidence of past life on Mars, or stranger still something still alive there, it would utterly change the world. Such a discovery would be akin to those made by Copernicus or Galileo. It would change the way everyone everywhere views his or her relationship with the Cosmos, our place in space.
With Mars as the destination for future explorers, NASA can streamline its human exploration endeavor to take us where we’ve never been--returning unprecedented knowledge and inspiring generations to come. The human imperative to experience and understand our planetary neighborhood will continue, as it has for generations. Space exploration carries with it the promise of a hopeful future, and the time to take the next bold step into that future is now.

Bill Nye & The Planetary Society

See other posts from July 2013


Or read more blog entries about: Bill Nye, Planetary Society Political Advocacy


Bob Ware: 07/10/2013 03:32 CDT

Basically I still agree. Th same problem still exists today as then and before; Congress. They cannot see the long term path of steady commitment when a goal is worth doing.

Hop: 07/10/2013 11:11 CDT

Volatiles were found in the lunar cold traps in 2010. Recently Planetary Resources and DSI announced plans to mine asteroids. The Keck Study has demonstrated retrieving small asteroids are doable. Yet you persist with your Mars obsession. I will continue to throw away Planetary Society letters asking me to rejoin.

Paul McCarthy: 07/11/2013 12:23 CDT

Fine if costs are anything like the same order of magnitude as other options. But the regrettable fact is that human visits are going to be 200x (500x?) the cost of robotic ones, for no remotely commensurate gain. At the same time, it really is the case that one question, and one question alone, is 100x more interesting than all others: "Is there life out there?" (and the sub-question: "Intelligent life?"). This wasn't true even 20 years ago, both because the likelihood of life seems to get ever-greater by the month, and because many other mysteries seem to be answered by the year (without astronauts). Let's make a focused effort with the public purse to answer the big question robotically, which is eminently feasible RIGHT NOW but a huge financial battle in its own right. And let's leave the inspiring dream-chasing to private enterprise - probably with vastly more economical one-way trips!!! Because of basic considerations of deliverable payload and escape from Mars gravity, let alone private-sector efficiencies, these will be 1/50 the cost of government-funded return trips. There will be zero shortage of incredibly brave/daring/foolhardy/insane volunteers - that is already VERY clear. No matter their fate, who has the right to condemn their motivations? Everything from fame and glory upwards, they will be no different from Magellan, Cook (neither returned) or a host of other explorers and crews. Bizarre as the ideas first seemed, it's very clear with all trends in social media, crowdsourcing and reality TV, that such methods WILL in fact be (easily) able to soon stage such extravaganzas! And yes, they undoubtedly will involve live-tweeting and footage of interactions between the sexes etc. And the audiences, and therefore revenues and fame will be immense, colossal, beyond imagining. And some, many (most?) will die (like Magellan's crew, and at Roanoke). But unless the nanny-state obstructs, it will happen soon, thankfully before any wasteful gov't program.

Dieter Loewrigkeit: 07/11/2013 08:51 CDT

I have been a lifelong (64 years) advocate of space exploration for the benefit of mankind. However, I do not support manned missions and believe NASA needs a paradigm shift. While I have no doubt that man will one day travel to other planets, I don’t understand why this must be done now? Doesn’t it make more sense to fully explore these worlds robotically first (including our own planet) and then if necessary, plan a manned mission? It seems that NASA (and other spacefaring nations) is “putting the cart before the horse” in sending astronauts into space and then trying to figure out what to do with them. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old and is expected to be around for another 4 billion years. Man has been around for just 12 million years and has only recently (within the last 50 years) developed the ability to travel into space. Why is there such a rush to send men and women into space, at great risk and cost, to ultimately accomplish little science? Is it just a matter of “who gets there first” and the recognition they receive? Surely space exploration can be done more efficiently, at a lower cost and no risk to human life using robotics and artificial intelligence. This is where the US should be leading the world, in space exploration technology. Manned missions just drain money that would be better spent on scientific missions.

Casey Dreier: 07/11/2013 01:42 CDT

@Hop: Please read our Human Space exploration Roadmap in full, you'll see that it argues for Mars exploration with a series of intermediate goals that include rendezvousing with a deep-space asteroid. We're not against the Moon, or asteroids, (though we are ambivalent about the asteroid redirect mission as proposed) we just want NASA to focus on creating deep-space capable hardware and systems, after that, we can all decide if the Moon is a good destination.

David Frankis: 07/13/2013 09:54 CDT

@Casey: "We're not against the Moon". No, but the Road Map does seem to be informed by the fear that if the Moon is adopted as a stepping-stone, we'll never get to Mars.

Jim_LAX: 07/14/2013 05:26 CDT

Humans to Mars is the goal. Yes! So the question becomes "what is the best way to get there?" Now we need to define "best." * Does best mean lowest cost for humans on Mars? Then we should follow Bob Zubrin's plan he calls Mars Direct. * Does best mean use NASA as a jobs program by building hardware that looks impressive (SLS) but doesn't fit into any overall plan? Then capturing an asteroid will do just fine, as long as we change the plan every 3 or 4 years. * Does best mean developing an exploration system of modular hardware elements that can be used in different combinations to explore the entire solar system? I think so, and Steve Squires and Paul Spudis agree on this. We do need to keep one important fact in mind: Most of the hardware needed to land on the Moon will be useless on Mars, and visa versa. Consider the Apollo Lunar Lander. It worked great on the Moon but it would burn up in the Martian atmosphere every time! Likewise, the Curiosity sky crane landing system would crash on the Moon every time because its parachutes would be worthless! An exploration system who's components can be assembled in different ways to suit any destination makes sense in the long term. How many things can you build with Lego blocks because they all fit together? With this kind of system we can reach any destination without wasting time and money building huge rockets or monolithic space ships that only work for one destination. For example, we have chemical rockets and small ion engines now. Let's use them now, and when better technology is available plug that in and use it. No need to wait untill we perfect the ultimate starship warp engines! Go now, learn now.

Lance May: 07/14/2013 05:04 CDT

Yes, Bill Nye, at last a clear definitive goal! But it is so important that this goal is not sidetracked. The problem with the "roadmap to Mars" is that each intermediate step becomes a goal in itself, and the hardware required often bears no relationship with that required to get to Mars. The cost then becomes unsustainable. Zubrin, Musk and others have shown repeatedly that it is not necessary to spend the vast sums quoted by NASA to support a permanent outpost on Mars. It can be done at a sustainable cost provided it is a focussed effort. And remember, an outpost on a planetary surface is permanent, not transitory like a deep space structure or trip to an asteroid. There will always be naysayers and varying viewpoints, but Mars is such a worthwhile and challenging goal that I believe it will be supported by the majority of people.

Hop: 07/15/2013 10:45 CDT

@Casey: Tsiolkovsky's rocket equation is a major hurdle keeping economic spaceflight out of reach. Don Pettit and others have suggested extra terrestrial propellant is a way to break the tyranny of the rocket equation. See: There are two possible propellant sources close to our neighborhood in terms of delta V: NEAs and the polar cold traps on earth's moon. With propellant available at various places in the earth moon neighborhood, more economic space travel becomes possible. Not only travel about the earth moon system but throughout the inner solar system. The moon and/or NEAs are a prerequisite to economic space travel. Skipping this prerequisite will preclude sustainable efforts. The Planetary Society is endorsing a dead end.

Jim Goodridge: 07/15/2013 11:50 CDT

No doubt that Mars should be the ultimate goal of the next step in manned space exploration. I would think that China will end up on the Moon in the next decade or so, and will be in a much better position to continue a mission to Mars. With all of the political infighting in the United States I just can't imagine the American people being able to mount an adventure to Mars the same way they could meet the challenges of getting to the Moon in the 1960's. Hopefully the Planetary Society can be a strong influence but right now it looks like an uphill battle. In fairness I need to point out that I am not a citizen of the United States but the United States so how the United States spends it's dollars is none of my business but I really believe the United States will be much better off if it can start to do the really hard things again. I was thinking today that so much came out of the Gemini and Apollo missions that conspiracy theorists claim that a crashed UFO and an advanced civilization provided all of the hi tech gadgetry and knowledge. The western world needs a robust NASA.

Anonymous: 07/18/2013 09:14 CDT

How exactly did Apollo human landings "change the world"? I would say Sputnik changed the world far more.

Cherokee: 07/27/2013 01:08 CDT

The taxpayer hasn't received any percieved return on investment on manned spaceflight since Apollo. Our politicans and space program wasted decades on the Shuttle and ISS to the point where nobody is inspired by low-earth orbit anymore. People just stopped paying attention. Ask the public to name three astronauts and you'll get Armstrong, Aldrin, and Ride (maybe Kelly, but solely because of his wife). Ask the public to tell you the first thing that comes to mind when you say Space Shuttle and they'll probably tell you about one of the two times they fell from the sky. This idea that we as a country need an ambitious manned spaceflight program right now is ridiculous. We don't. We haven't had one for over forty years now. Sad as it is, the public has moved on. The next time the public will be inspired by our space program is in thirty or so years when its finally announced that simple life popped up on Mars at one time. Imagine what that will be like. On the day its announced, billions of people will pause, if only for a moment, to reflect on the implications of that momentous discovery in their own way. That's at the very least. Most people will talk about it. They will debate. That's far more personal than watching a video of someone else walking with a spacesuit on. That's the kind of emotional connection that's been largely absent since Apollo (pride), save for Hubble pictures (awe) and disasters (sadness). "We're not alone" is the achievement that seems most in reach at this point in time. I hope I'm alive for that.

Jared Cowan: 08/01/2013 11:28 CDT

I am concerned about a lack of discussion regarding a space elevator. Regardless of Ion engines, or solar sails the only way we have currently to get materials into space from Earth seems to be from chemicals rockets. I am a proponent of the space elevator for many reasons. Firstly, I believe it will create multiple new technologies along the way, as Mr. Nye points out, studies into high technology does, invariably it seems. I also believe it will allow for a greater presence in space besides the ISS. Which is why I think that interdicting an asteroid and mining is a fine idea. Extrude carbon nanotube ribbons, from 3D printers down to the Earths surface. I'm certain it sounds mad. I don't think it has to be. Just for the record I fully agree with the end goal in this current epoch being Mars. By the time we're there we will have started building spaceships, in space, which makes sense to me. Your friend out there, JC

Terence Moonseed: 08/11/2013 02:39 CDT

Does the destiny of human kind lie dispersed throughout the universe, or in the furtile embrace of Earth? Perhaps the goal of space flight is th transport of genetic material to other inhabitable environments, but does it necessarily have to be human? The creatures most at home in the void of space are the machine and bacteria. Perhaps we should search for life in the solar system and also try and colonise environments to kick start an ecosystem.

Bob Ware: 08/20/2013 07:15 CDT

Colonization in space is where we need to go next and next must come sooner than later. Mankind needs to expand outward to survive. As slow as we travel we need to leave now. Kepler has died and we need to replace the spacecraft to keep looking for homes. Before we can sail for a second home we need to learn how to live on an alien planet. Mars is better suited to learn how to do that than Luna is. Colonize Luna? Absolutely yes but after we get Mars underway. Luna cannot teach us how to live on Mars. MER A & B along with MSL {Spirit, Opportunity & Curiosity} have shown us where we would have the best and least chances of being able to survive on the Martian surface. Our last hurdle is really radiation shielding. Gravity is simply to rotate the spacecraft at a steady rate, which is not negatively fast. Simulating Martian soil can show us what food can be grown there in green houses. Better yet, an automated farming spacecraft needs to be sent with seeds that will be loaded with Martian soil, varying depths by crop samples and watered with dug up and analyzed Martian water. In the event we cannot obtain Martian water ice we could at least use our own generated water from fuel cells and try to grow our own crops. A 2nd rover vehicle could be landed in tandem and rover over to to the farm and by hand-off via an extended duct transport system send the crop samples to be analyzed. This would not be hard to do though a little bit of a challenge. Challenges like that are how you advance.

Bob Ware: 08/20/2013 07:27 CDT

JC - I like the idea of challenges but a space elevator for this planet as I see it cannot happen. The simple reason is this planet is to dynamic with our weather patterns and plate tectonics. Someone proposed a floating platform with the elevator on that above the cloud decks average altitude. The problem is lightning can travel upward and it does for many miles just as easily as it goes down to ground strikes. These spires have been seen from space on many occasions. One of those striking the elevator, or even a meteor would rain a calamity of debris onto a horribly large footprint impact zone. Most of the debris would fall back at "meteorific" speeds and that will create lots of secondary damage. The meteor impact event on say Mars, would be equally horrific and destructive. Space elevators are not a good idea. Sure in Star trek Voyager they had a society that built one but that is Sci-Fi only. Star Trek is great inspiration for sure. I am a Lifer, fan from day 1 (TOS) but common sense must not be ignored. I can't support a space elevator. Sorry.

Bob Ware: 08/20/2013 07:37 CDT

JL - I do agree with you overall. Orion is a start in that direction which I suggested sometime ago. I suggested an Interplanetary Cruiser which could have the interior modified based upon mission plan. That is, Luna or Martian or Asteroid interior without having to build an entirely new spacecraft. Unfortunately the Gov't made Orion to small to start with. Originally it was an 8 crew spacecraft now they are flying the 4 crew spacecraft. Either size is to small. They haven't even made a multiple docking & propulsion module to mate the Orion spacecraft into one vehicle. Now they'll have to make the docking module like an octopus and sit it out in front of the Orion spacecraft and use all of the spacecrafts SPS to propel themselves outward. On a side note, NASA to day selected the first 8 Orion astronauts, 50% of each sex made the cut this time. To bad only 8. Well it's a start though.

Bob Ware: 08/20/2013 07:52 CDT

Alycool - It's easy to say ignore the YouTube false claims but we can't. The best any of us can do is to shoot it down when we hear it. Look at the LRO and you'll see the APOLLO hardware dropped off and flown there by our Astronaut/Pilots, oh yes, the one Astronaut/Geologist, Harrison Schmidt. The ones that get me are the armchair "Photoshop" experts who claim proof that the photos are fake! LOL! I saw a scammer taking people for a ride at a convention center with his alleged proof of the fake landings and for that matter the fake orbital pictures. He claimed in this one photo from APOLLO-12 comprised of 4 photos from earlier missions blended to look like one image as proof that 12 and implied 11 never got to the moon. These were just trashed rockets passing off as real missions or something like that. He made his money. So we need to be alert for these scammers and take them on with proof.

Bob Ware: 08/20/2013 07:56 CDT

Regarding Anonymous's rhetorical questions which was answered, was answered correctly. Sputnik did change the world, not APOLLO. APOLLO was a military necessity at the time. Sorry to have to say that but it was, as was Mercury & Gemini which made APOLLO possible.

Michael Krikorian: 09/02/2013 08:24 CDT

While I agree that Mars is a necessary goal in mankind's exploration of space, the goal of human exploration of Mars must also of itself be an interim goal. As Bill quoted in the beginning of his blog post from the conclusions of the 2008 workshop: "the purpose of sustained human exploration is to go to Mars and beyond". ...and beyond. Ultimately, the work that our society currently supports that will help eventually find, confirm and characterize Earth-like planets in orbit around stars in our galactic neighborhood lays the foundation for the ultimate goal of human exploration of space. As a species, it is imperative that we human beings set our sights beyond this solar system. Human exploration, and most likely colonization, of Mars must be a training ground, a dress rehearsal for the ultimate goal of pointing the focus of human exploration and human migration toward the stars. I urge the leadership of our society to consider aligning itself in partnership with the 100 Year Starship organization, if in fact that is not already under consideration. For now, the goal is Mars. Ultimately, the goal must become the stars.

Jack Blair: 09/10/2013 11:30 CDT

Sir, The Planetary Society is wonderful. Excellent work. However, if we are to further space exploration (and put a man on Mars), you and everyone else dedicated to that goal must drop the politics. When people like you and Dr. Tyson, et al., show up in dumbed-down spaces with [insert nicer word for "idiots" here] like Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow, blathering about global warming and beefing about religious people, you only hold us back from the higher goals. You speak well, but I can't help thinking that you worry that some astronaut might sneak a Bible aboard the ISS, or that he might commandeer a mic and pull an Apollo 8. Please stay off "The Big Think" as well. It is neither big, nor a think. Have nothing to do with Lawrence Krauss, either - he is sore (the kids call it "butthurt") that he was passed over by President GW Bush for that nice honorarium in favor of Tyson. He also has a profoundly anti-humanist viewpoint: That we should venture into space not to assert our heroicism and greatness, but to cower before inanimate matter, confessing that we are insignificant and worthless. Jettison the Lefty politics and "social justice" concerns. FOCUS. As D. Chapelle/Black Bush said, "MARS, B*TCHES."

unsure300: 10/24/2013 07:57 CDT

I was watching a science channel. Some thoughts on Mars. A habitat: man-made cave, or mine. Suit: old-fashioned deep-diving suits. Make rock from digging mine into concrete equivalent. Large chambers. Earth-type buildings inside.

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