To Mars or not to Mars?

Amongst  the news this week was President Obama’s announcement of a new space exploration policy for NASA. Out goes the Constellation program, including the Orion crewship, its Ares launch rocket, and the rest of the project’s Moon-bound architecture. Obama says NASA were on an unsustainable path, costing too much money and taking too long to develop. Instead he’s given them extra funds ($6 billion, modest by the standards of space exploration) and told them to find new ways of putting people into space. Obama’s particular goal is to send someone to Mars by the mid 2030s and return them safely to Earth. I think Obama’s plans have ruffled a few feathers, especially among those longing for a return to the Moon, but it seems to me to be both bold and intelligent. 

The European Space Agency also has a programme – called Aurora – which includes components involved with both robotic and human exploration. This programme is a kind of optional extra within the ESA budget and countries that wanted to join in were asked to pay an extra contribution. The UK opted in so now we pay a top-up on our subscription to ESA in order to participate. This will be one of the things that transfers to the new UK Space Agency, when it’s up and running properly, from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Thus far the UK policy has been not to get involved in human space exploration. There are a lot of reasons behind that, but one of the most important is sheer cost. Space exploration is expensive by its very nature, but involving human beings creates enormous extra costs connected with keeping them alive and keeping them safe while they are in space. Since our national expenditure on space exploration has largely been channelled through STFC (or its predecessor PPARC) where it has had to compete for funds with “pure” science activities in the areas of particle physics and astronomy (and, more recently, nuclear physics).

I think the scientific argument against funding human exploration has always been as follows. There aren’t many things that people could do on Mars that a robot couldn’t – here I’m talking just about scientific experiments and the like. Human space exploration is much more expensive than the robotic variety. The scientific value for money is consequently much higher for robotic missions ergo, since money is tight, we don’t do human space exploration. Plus, we couldn’t afford it anyway…

The other factor is that there aren’t many feasible targets for manned spaceflight in the first place. The Moon and Mars are basically it. Other objects in the solar system are either too distant or too inhospitable (or both) to be considered. Unmanned probes haven’t all been successful, but some certainly have paid off enormously in scientific terms. I give the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn (and its extraordinary moon Titan) as an example that has turned out, in my opinion, to be nothing short of sensational. The images of Titan’s surface sent back by Huygens were gobsmackingly amazing, for instance.

Before going on let me point out that I’m a cosmologist, not a planetary scientist. There’s a tendency among scientists to think that their own field is more important than the others with which it has to compete for funding. It’s perfectly natural that someone working on galaxy formation should find galaxies more interesting than planets, and vice-versa. We all pick what we want to work on, and obviously we pick what interests us most.  But any scientist worth his/her salt should have enough of a grasp of the big picture to recognize outstanding work in disciplines other than their own.  I don’t want anyone to think that the following comments are intended to suggest that there isn’t excellent work going on in the UK and rest of the world in the field of planetary exploration.

I do think, however, that there is a big difference in character between fundamental science (especially particle physics and cosmology) and planetary exploration. In fundamental physics we are attempting to uncover the nature of basic constituents of the universe and the general laws that govern the structure of matter and how it interacts and evolves – in other words, its scope is (or at least tries to be) universal. It’s certainly this aspect – trying to unravel an enormous cosmic puzzle – that drew me into cosmology. By contrast, the study of a particular planet – even a fascinating one, such as Saturn with all the beautiful orbital dynamics going on in its ring system – lacks this aspect of universality. That’s why cosmology interests me more than planetary exploration does. This is nothing more than a statement of personal interest.

Having said that – and pointing out  again that I’m no particular expert on the Solar System – I don’t find the Moon and Mars very  interesting from a scientific point of view compared with, say,  the outer planets which I find fascinating. Others – a great many others, in fact – obviously do see a lot of interest in Mars. I’m not at all convinced about the scientific merit of some other space probes either, especially the planned Mercury orbiter BepiColombo. But there we are. We can’t all expect to agree on everything. What I’m trying to say, though, is at the moment these different types of activity are funded from the same pot. In order to draw up an order of priority, STFC has to compare apples with oranges with predictably bizarre outcomes.

Moreover, space exploration – especially human space exploration – isn’t just about science. There are definite commercial opporunities in space, in both short and long term.  Space missions often  provide results that are fairly easily accessible to non-scientists, so has considerable popular appeal as well as inspiring young people to take up science and engineering subjects. It has immense cultural impact too, altering the way we think about ourselves and our place in the Universe. But these aren’t unique to space exploration. Particle physics and astronomy do this too.

 But the overriding factor is the politics. When NASA put a man on the Moon 40 years ago, it was never about science – it was a political statement made right at the height of the Cold War. We no longer have a Cold War, but nations still feel the need to show off to each other. It’s called national pride. Politicians know how this works, and how it can turn into votes…

So we shouldn’t think of the plan to put a man on Mars as being primarily a scientific thing anyway. I’m quite comfortable with that.  My worry – if the UK decides to take part in manned Mars exploration – is that the money will come from the already dwindling pot allocated to fundamental science. Particle physics and astronomy research in the UK is on the ropes after the recent devastating cuts. Any more blows like this and we’ll be on the floor. I’m deeply worried that far worse is already on the way – a combination of public spending cuts after the general election and political directives to devote more to space exploration.

The new UK Space Agency could be either a hero or a villain, and I don’t know how it will turn out. On the one hand, the creation of this organization may prevent the fundamental sciences from being squeezed further by expensive space projects. In this way it might represent a recognition of the different characteristics I talked about above. The industrial and commercial aspects of space exploration are present in the new outfit too.  On the other hand, the result of hiving off the “glamorous” space parts of STFC may lead to further cuts in what is left behind. I’m also nervous about the future relationship between UKSA and STFC, especially the extent to which the former can demand research grant funding from the latter.

I’m sorry this has been such a long and rambling post, but this has been on my mind for quite some time and I wanted at last to put something together about it. I could summarise what I’m saying as follows:

  •  I’m not convinced about the scientific case for Mars exploration – particularly if it involves manned missions
  • BUT it’s not my field so it’s not my decision to make
  • AND there’s more to Mars than science anyway
  • SO by all means do it if there’s a will
  • BUT for heavens sake don’t pay for it by killing off the rest of astronomy

This is something that I’d be genuinely interested in hearing other views on. What is stated above is my opinion and is not intended to be representative of anyone, but I’d be very interested in hearing other views through the comments box.

16 Responses to “To Mars or not to Mars?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’d love to see a man on Mars for the same reason that Mallory attempted Everest – “because it is there”.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Well, Quite. However, Milton Keynes is also “there” …

  3. >> Thus far the UK policy has been not to get involved in human space exploration.

    This is simply not true. I saw Norman Wisdom fly into space in “The Bulldog Breed”, and then there was Quatermass stuff!!!!

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    I don’t agree. Milton Keynes is not in the Himalayas.

  5. steve eales Says:

    I got hooked on space by watching the Moon landing, spent my adolescence reading science fiction, and as a result of all this ended up as an astronomer. Therefore, I am a complete enthusiast for manned space flight, but this is all based on emotion and I have no intellectual point to make. Well maybe one….
    I guess planetary exploration is at the opposite end of the scientific spectrum from cosmology. One (cosmology) is reductionist, trying to explain nature by the minimum number of simple laws. The other (planetary exploration) is like geology and chemistry in exploring the full spectrum of complexity in nature that those physical laws can generate. Therefore, apples and oranges, and it’s not surprising that it’s hard to prioritize which is more important.

  6. telescoper Says:


    I’ve heard a lot of scientists say essentially what you said in your first paragraph about the effect of the Moon landing. All I can say is that that wasn’t really what happened in my own case. I settled on a career in science because of one particularly inspirational teacher at School. So while I’m aware of the value of space missions at getting kids excited about science, I’m even more aware of the problem caused by not having enough science teachers in schools.

    And think how much easier it would be to train a physics teacher and put them in a school compared with training an astronaut and sending them to Mars.


  7. Mike Hapgood Says:

    Peter – another reason for the focus on Moon and Mars is that humans can go there and get home without dying from chronic radiation exposure due to cosmic rays. There are lots of ideas for dealing with the acute radiation risks from solar radiation storms. But the drip-drip effect of cosmic rays at say 1 to 20 GeV energies will stop us flying humans beyond Mars for many decades – probably until we have much faster spacecraft.

    For astronomers, it could also be interesting if we can fly to L2 to maintain/upgrade future space telescopes. And if you have the technology to reach the Moon, you can also fly to L2.

    • telescoper Says:


      My limited understanding was that the main danger in sending people to Mars is actually the risk from radiation over such a long flight. Is that not correct?


  8. The attraction of Mars is that it seems to be marginably habitable, with abundant water ice not far below the surface over large regions. The question of whether life actually got started there is every bit as fundamental as any question in cosmology. And if history is any guide, we will eventually exploit the opportunity for colonisation.

    Is it scientifically worth while to send people not robots to Mars? Well consider: the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been on Mars for more than 6 years. In that time they have travelled a distance of 4.8 and 12.4 miles, respectively. The Apollo 14 astronauts made a 2 mile hike in 4 hours. Later Apollo missions had a lunar rover and travelled up to 22 miles over 3 days. Roughly speaking, 1 day of manned activity = 3 years robotic exploration, plus of course humans can do a lot of stuff that robots can’t. Current plans would give an 18 month stay on Mars for the first astronauts, which is long enough to go through several cycles of discovery and follow-up. So even if a manned mission is hundreds of times more expensive, it still gives you a lot more value for money, even neglecting all the non-scientific factors.

    Mars is not the only target of course. Near-Earth asteroids are easier to reach and vastly easier to return from. In the long run, the asteroids are probably the place to go for resources to travel out of the inner solar system.

    As for all this squeezing astronomy out of existence, ground-based astronomy is peanuts compared to manned space flight, so shutting us down is neither here nor there if there is the political will to go to Mars. Which leaves us as usual having to make the case for continued funding on our own merits. Space astronomy is more in the line of fire; luckily for us, unmanned space science is ring-fenced within ESA as part of the mandatory program, i.e. all ESA members must fund it as part of their minimal contribution. ESA space science always has included both solar system missions like Cassini and Bepi Columbo, and astronomy ones like Planck and the James Webb Space Telescope. These apples vs oranges decisions are taken at ESA level, so you can’t blame or praise STFC/UKSA too much for the outcome.

    • telescoper Says:


      The question of whether life actually got started there is every bit as fundamental as any question in cosmology

      I agree with what I think you mean by this, although it does depend on what “fundamental” means! I’d agree however that it is something that is a question that is deeply interesting for a lot of reasons.

      The big irony about the fascination people have with whether there is or was life on Mars is that we show such little regard for so many forms of life on the one planet where we actually know it does exist. I’m not saying that’s an argument for not going to Mars, of course. I think finding that the rest of the Solar System is devoid of life – which it may turn out to be – may convince us to take a little bit more care of our own biosphere. Whether or not we set up colonies on Mars or elsewhere, Earth will continue to be home for the vast majority of humans for the forseeable future. The idea that some people have that we can all move to Mars after we’ve trashed our own planet is just silly.

      I understand what your saying about the mobility of men on the Moon. My point, though, is that the scientific return from the Apollo missions wouldn’t justify the expense of sending them. It wasn’t primarily about science. Whether this would also be true about a manned mission to Mars depends on how it is designed. A longer stay would allow more science to be done, but I still feel that the political and cultural dimensions would be the prime factor. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I hasten to add.

      As for ESA, I agree with you and tried to explain it in a blog post some time ago. The ESA programme is not pick-and-mix so we have to go along with the collective choices. Most of the time these are things that strongly benefit UK science (e.g. Planck and Herschel, as well as Cassini-Huygens and a host of others). Others don’t turn out so well, but we have to just get on with it. On balance, membership of ESA is good for us.

      The cost issue is where I probably find it less easy to agree. If you look at the recent prioritisation exercises then you’ll see that what tends to happen is that relatively cheap things get cancelled to pay for expensive things. Because they’re cheap you have to cancel more of them. I think before long, ground-based astronomy will be our membership of ESO and a bit part in SKA and we’ll have lost all the excellent stuff we could have been doing with smaller telescopes and experiments.


  9. I think before long, ground-based astronomy will be our membership of ESO and a bit part in SKA and we’ll have lost all the excellent stuff we could have been doing with smaller telescopes and experiments.

    This could be where the UK is heading even if we don’t get involved in manned space flight. I always thought that joining ESO would be fatal in the long run for our national telescopes. On the bright side, this does give us access to both world-leading mega-facilities and also to highly effective smaller facilities (e.g. HARPS). With luck, ESO may even take over some of the small national telescopes which are currently threatened.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    The conspiratorialists believe that the Apollo programme was ground-based. I generally reply that it would have been easier to go to the moon than perpetrate and maintain the hoax, but with modern computer graphics there is now the chance to save a few bob this way on a Mars shot…

  11. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « To Mars or not to Mars? […]

  12. telescoper Says:


    There was a 70s Sci-Fi film about that. Capricorn One. Pretty good actually, if memory serves.


  13. Mike Hapgood Says:

    Peter – the radiation is only one of the risks. The space medics also worry about the psychological effects – on indvidual astronauts and on the functioning of any flight team.

    ESA did a study on radiation effects and concluded that travel to and from Mars was feasible. But, given the increased cancer risk, the study recommended a minimum age of 35 for male astronauts and 45 for female astronauts.

    But we don’t really understand space radiation effects from cosmic rays. The present work is based on extrapolation of acute gamma ray effects (i.e. Hiroshima and Nagaski) to lowish fluxes of GeV ions. But will GeV ions really trigger cancer in cells or will they just kill cells? Biological systems can deal well with small numbers of dead cells. So space radiation effects on humans are still very much a research area, e.g. see

  14. Some very interesting comments and I have bookmarked your blog for future reference 🙂

    Capricorn One was on the BBC just a few months back, a great TV film!

    As regards the UK Space Agency, they seem to have multiple web domains with different content on each. Some are quite obviously unofficial.

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