The road to Mars includes a detour through Lakewood

Mars Society is dedicated to human exploration and settlement on Mars

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In Robert Zubrin’s Lakewood office hangs a photo he took in 2009 of a space shuttle taking off to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, a mission he strongly advocated for, despite pushback from former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe.

Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, sees two versions of the future for humanity. The first is where new worlds are being explored, and even if things can go wrong, there’s an optimistic future of infinite possibilities. The other future is bleak in which the world is crowded and lacks enough resources to go around.

“I want the first version, and Mars is the closest planet that has all the resources needed for life and civilization. If we can go there, that’s the first step in becoming a multi-planet species,” said Zubrin. “They say the Earth is only so big. It isn’t, because it comes with an infinite sky.”

Zubrin co-founded The Mars Society in 1998, a Lakewood based organization that is dedicated to human exploration and settlement on Mars. The organization, which has at least 7,000 members, works on public outreach and educational programs, political advocacy and research.

The Mars Society has two simulated sites that mirror conditions on Mars — one in the Canadian Arctic and the other in a Utah desert. The sites are used for practice Mars missions to further understand the technology and science needed for humans to operate on the planet. Crews of typically six people attempt to conduct a sustained program of field exploration while operating as if they are on Mars. In the Utah location, a crew found a dinosaur bone, something that Zubrin says a robotic rover might have missed.

“Until we can send humans to Mars, I want to send rovers. These are very limited tools compared to what humans can do,” said Zubrin. “The human explorer is at least a thousand times faster and better than the rover.”

Shannon Rupert, an ecologist and the director of the Mars Society’s Utah site, said she used to tell people we would be on Mars in 2013. Zubrin said the biggest obstacle to getting to Mars has been “the decay of the political system.”

“It’s a matter of having the desire to go, that driving force to get there. 20 years ago, we were considered nutty, fringe scientists,” said Rupert. “Now we’re right in the mainstream. I think we will go to Mars.”

There’s political support for the Mars project. In 2017 President Donald Trump signed a NASA funding bill that included plans for a 2030’s manned mission to Mars.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the Subcommittee on Space, noted that in 2033, Earth and Mars will be close enough to erase months of typical travel time to reach Mars. Perlmutter said NASA’s long-term exploration goals include human exploration of Mars, and the plans from this Administration to go back to the Moon depend on developing and testing the technologies needed for a mission to Mars. As part of the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, there is a required report from NASA on the technical and cost requirements for a human mission to Mars in 2033. The report is still in the works.

“There are several technical challenges to a Mars mission, but we can tackle all of those challenges with our partners in the aerospace industry just like we did 50 years ago during the Apollo program. As Americans, exploration is in our DNA, and space exploration fuels American innovation,” said Perlmutter.

Zubrin envisions a frontier environment when it comes to living on Mars initially. He says in certain ways, life won’t be as appealing as life on Earth. People will live in enclosed habitats and not have all the same comforts of home as there are on Earth.

“On the other hand, you’re going to have the satisfaction and freedom that comes with being a maker of your world, not just the inhabitant of one already made. There’s going to be a tremendous desire for invention on Mars,” said Zubrin. “There is going to be new problems encountered. The Martians are going to want to find a new way of doing things.”

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