STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — For 15 years, planetary scientist Steve Squyres’ life revolved around Mars, with good reason. He was the principal investigator for one of the longest-running NASA missions on the surface of another world, executed by the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
If anyone has a sense of the lay of the land on the Red Planet, it’d be Squyres. So what does he think of the idea of setting up permanent cities on Mars?
“My take on this one is no, I don’t think so,” Squyres said here today at Penn State University during the ScienceWriters 2019 conference.
He’s not opposed to sending people to Mars. Far from it. “Human research base? Absolutely, as soon as possible,” Squyres said. It’s even possible that super-rich tourists will want to travel to Mars and back, he said.
But based on the problems that Spirit and Opportunity encountered during their longer-than-anticipated operating life on the Red Planet, plus Squyres’ experience as a researcher in Antarctica and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, he isn’t convinced that Mars can ever be a place to raise a family.
“Antarctica is international territory,” he said. “If you want to build a home, if you want to go homesteading, set up shop, build a community, build a town, nobody’s going to stop you. … And yet, nobody does it. Why? Antarctica is a terrible place, it really is. And Mars is just so much worse.”
He pointed out that although Mars’ surface temperatures can get as high as 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the equilibrium temperature is about 80 below zero. The predominantly carbon dioxide atmosphere is less than 1 percent as dense as Earth’s, and the powdery rust-red dust gets everywhere.
“I guarantee you, when the first astronauts come back from Mars, and people say, ‘What was it like?’ — the first thing that they will say is, ‘I hated the dust.’ ”
It was the dust that finally got to Opportunity, a little more than a year ago, when a global dust storm turned out the lights on the solar-powered robot. Spirit had frozen up years earlier — and after months of trying unsuccessfully to re-establish contact with Opportunity, Squyres and his colleagues declared an end to the marathon mission this February.
After Opportunity; Squyres had hoped to win NASA’s support for a sample return mission to a comet. But his proposal lost out in June to the Dragonfly mission to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Then another opportunity opened up: Just last month, he left his longtime post at Cornell University to become chief scientist at Blue Origin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture.
“I’m very, very fortunate to be in the job I’m in right now,” Squyres said. “Blue Origin started off with rocket engines and small space vehicles, but as we’re moving toward the first flight of New Glenn, as we’re moving toward Blue Moon, as we’re moving toward a human landing system as part of the Artemis program, and as we start to fly all kinds of payloads on even New Shepard, what we’re finding at Blue Origin is that what we do begins to intersect with science in many, many different ways.”
All those intersections provide opportunities for a chief scientist. For example, the New Shepard suborbital spaceship can be used to prepare the way for moon missions. “We can spin the capsule,” Squyres said. “We’re going to do that on an upcoming flight and get simulated lunar gravity — 11 rpm and you get one-sixth G.”
It just so happens that Squyres’ views intersect with Bezos’ views when it comes to going to the moon vs. sending settlers to Mars. “My friends who say they want to move to Mars or something … I say, ‘Why don’t you live in Antarctica for a year first, because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars,’ ” Bezos said in 2017.
And that means Squyres’ perspective runs counter to SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s view that a million settlers can be transported to Martian cities, starting well before NASA’s current target date of the mid-2030s for crewed exploration missions to Mars and its moons.
Squyres didn’t mention Musk or SpaceX, but he noted that privately held companies tend to have more leeway than government-led space programs.
“I think it’s very likely that sooner or later we will have a confluence of events where some organization will have both the means and the will to put humans onto the [Martian] surface, to go and stay,” he said. “And given the enormous diversity of human opinions and life experiences out there, I don’t think they’ll have a hard time finding not just willing people, but people who are sane and capable, and good crew members who will do their jobs to the best of their abilities.”
Those crew members could well set up the research bases or tourist stopovers that Squyres has in mind.
“But I really believe that when you start to talk about true settlement, true colonization, that requires sending a broad cross-section of humans, including ages from birth to old age,” he said. “Trying to support people like that, and actually have them want to be there in that environment … I just don’t see it.”
What about terraforming Mars to make it more Earthlike?
“Terraforming presupposes that you have both the technology and the wisdom to tailor the climate of an entire planet to your liking,” Squyres said. “One thing we’re learning on Earth right now is that climate systems are incredibly complex things. To me, I see no evidence that anybody knows what the technology is to terraform Mars. I don’t see evidence that we have the wisdom to change a planet’s climate to our liking. If we do, at some point in the future, I would like to terraform Earth.”
Other highlights from Squyres’ talk:
- Even though he’s a master of robotic space missions, Squyres believes humans will be essential for Mars exploration. He said the first job will be to drill down hundreds of meters to look for liquid water and perhaps even life. The difficulties that NASA’s Mars InSight lander has encountered trying to force a heat probe just a few meters into the ground illustrates how difficult such a job can be for remote-controlled robots. “Drilling is hard,” Squyres said.
- Squyres’ experience as an aquanaut on NASA underwater training missions convinced him that the concept of an Earth-based Mission Control will have to “fundamentally change” to accommodate the communication delays involved in a crewed mission to Mars. He noted that he “died” during a medical simulation that was conducted on the Aquarius underwater habitat, due to the simulated signal delays as well the lack of a physician on the undersea crew.
- One of Squyres’ other interests is Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. Where could evidence of life be found first, Europa or Mars? “A reasonable but quite possibly wrong response to your question would be that Europa’s more likely, but Mars is an easier place to look,” he said. NASA’s Europa Clipper, a flyby mission that’s due for launch in the 2020s, will help characterize the moon’s icy shell and the ocean of liquid water that’s thought to lie beneath. “Europa Clipper’s going to make a lot of headway on that,” Squyres said.