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Virginia Scientists Work Towards Human Exploration of Mars

Why should humans go to Mars? What are the challenges to getting there? What can Mars teach us about ourselves? For Science Matters and Virginia Currents, WCVE intern Kayla Solsbak spoke with an astronaut and two scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center about the future of the Mars program.


When our solar system formed about 4 and a half billion years ago, Mars looked a lot like Earth, says Dr. Joel Levine. Mars had surface oceans, rivers, lakes and a thick atmosphere. But something happened.

Joel Levine: We don't know exactly what happened, but whatever happened turned Mars into a very inhospitable planet of today, with no water at the surface, a very, very thin atmosphere. And the question is, what happened on Mars?

Levine is a NASA researcher who studies human exploration of Mars. He also teachers at William and Mary. He says the only way to find out is by sending humans -- not robots -- to the planet. But this mission will be unlike any previous endeavors. NASA Astronaut Kay Hire has logged over 700 hours in space.

Kay Hire: For 56 years we have been putting humans into space but this is so much further. It takes about three days to get to the moon. But it's going to take us about six to nine months just to get to Mars.

Hire says the round trip will take several years. Pat Troutman, a NASA space architect, says the longer exposure to the space environment could present one challenge.

Pat Troutman: There's lots of high energy radiation out in space that we don't really have a good handle on yet.There's another one which is called gravity. We don't really know the implications of long-duration microgravity past a year. Is it something that's very easy to accommodate? Or is it a major challenge? We don't know.

Narration: Former President Obama supported scouting missions to Mars and said he believed by the mid 2030s, humans would be orbiting the red planet. The Trump administration expressed interest in going to Mars, but revived a George W. Bush-era plan to return to the Moon first. Dr. Levine says funding could be the biggest obstacle.

Levine: The weak link in sending humans to Mars is not the machinery, not the launch vehicle, not the capsule that will bring humans to Mars and not the astronauts. I think the weak link is money.

As long as there is funding for the mission, Levine is confident NASA can realistically reach its goal. If and when astronauts arrive on Mars, Kay Hire says they’ll have multiple roles to play.

Hire: They're going to be conducting scientific experiments, they're going to be setting up their living quarters or whatever the situation might be once we get there. And then I expect they're going to venture out and be scientists researching, what can we find?

Ideally life, at least that’s what Dr. Levine hopes. He says the discovery of microorganisms could lead to further understanding of diseases and how our own bodies function. For NASA’s Pat Troutman, the purpose of the Mars mission is insurance.

Troutman: We hope that nothing bad happens to us that we need to use our insurance, but if an asteroid were to come too close, if there were to be a plague of some sort, investing in establishing a second foothold for civilization and humanity is something that you do.

The Trump administration’s priorities for human missions are still developing. But in the meantime robotic expeditions continue to deepen our understanding of Mars, and how we might get there. A January report revealed that an orbiting spacecraft discovered nearly pure ice just below the surface. Planetary scientists say it could be a water source for the explorers who finally step foot on the red planet. For Virginia Currents and Science Matters, I'm Kayla Solsbak, WCVE News.