Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why Send a Robot to Mars?

A few months ago I went camping with some friends. We talked around the campfire until about 2 in the morning - a little about the Utah Jazz, a lot about politics, a little more about the Jazz (one of my friends is arguably the most avid Jazz fan to ever live), and even a little about NASA and the Curiosity rover. One of my friends asked the question "Why did we send a robot to Mars, what was the point?" Although I think I did an OK job answering the question on the spot, I'd like to take a second to answer the question more thoroughly now. I'd like to give 5 reasons for us to send a robot to mars.

Reason #1 - Because it's there
 President Kennedy once said "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…"
The same attitude is applicable to an unmanned mission to Mars. A lot of hard work went into getting a robot on Mars. Was that time and money wasted? It is human nature to climb high mountains, run long distances, and explore the unknown. We push ourselves to the limit just to find it. Mars is a perfect example. In the night sky, Mars is barely visible to the naked eye. It is, on average, 125 million miles away from us. We look up at the night sky and it becomes a challenge. And so we go to Mars, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. 

Reason #2 - Improve our knowledge of the universe
We've already learned some pretty cool things about the universe. The Curiosity rover will tell us even more about the universe. Yes, we're sending it to find evidence of life on Mars, and that would be really cool to find, but we've also sent it with a wide range of analytical tools to tell us all about Mars. Many people see science working in a question/answer process. That is:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Design a test
  3. Get an answer
  4. Ask another question
But that's not how it usually works. Usually it works more like this:
  1. Ask a question
  2. Design a test
  3. Get some really weird results
  4. Explore those weird results
  5. Get more weird results
  6. Design new tests
  7. Get the answer to a question you weren't even asking in the first place
This is one reason to explore Mars. We are looking for life on Mars, but we're sure to learn lots of other things about our universe as we explore deeper.

Reason #3 - Technologic advances
This is somewhat related to Reason #2. When we get really weird results we have to design new ways to study those results. Science in general, and NASA specifically, has asked some really interesting questions in the last 50 years. To answer those questions we've had to develop new technology. That new technology then becomes available to benefit the rest of humanity. Some notable advances that have come out of NASA are:

  •  Improved computer software
  • Enriched baby food
  • Portable cordless vacuums 
  • Solar energy
  • Water purification
  • Carbon Monoxide detection
  • Wireless headsets
  • Flame retardant materials
  • LEDs
  • Diamond coating
  • Artificial hips/limbs
  • Food safety
  • Electronic advancements
In other words, almost everything you interact with on a daily basis can be at least indirectly tied to advances it the space program. Many can be tied directly. If you want a more complete look, check out this really cool interactive website. An interesting note: Velcro was not developed by NASA. It's often listed as something NASA has developed, but that's just not true.

Reason #4 - Pave the way for human visitors
About a year ago my son and I were at a used bookstore looking through old books. My son found a large, space themed picture book. He looked through with wonder (remember, his favorite book before then was Cosmos by Carl Sagan), until he came to a picture of Mars. He asked a few questions about Mars and then exclaimed, "Dad, some day I'm going to walk on Mars!" To this day he talks on and on about Mars. We watched the video of the Curiosity rover landing and now he's excited to see the rover in person some day.1
My son's excitement to someday walk on Mars isn't necessarily overanxious. I believe that he may in fact walk on the surface of Mars some day. That's pretty amazing. Sure the first trip to Mars may be a one way trip - it's much easier. That may seem crazy, but explorers throughout history have always left their homes without a guarantee of returning. Many knew they wouldn't return. I would take the opportunity without hesitation, and I know I'm not the only one. I'm excited to see the spirit of exploration is alive.

[1] My son is excited to see the rover, but he has told me that he hopes "that robot is dead by then. I don't want it to shoot me with its laser". Maybe I shouldn't have shown him this picture.