The human mission to Mars is a very exciting and challenging journey. The trip will take about nine months each way with a stay time on the surface of Mars of several hundred days. The long length of the mission will provide an excellent opportunity to engage the public and especially students in elementary and middle school in the mission. Following the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. and the rest of the world witnessed a significant increase in the numbers of students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics and entering the STEM professions (I was one of those students). In the U.S., the influx of students in the STEM professions resulted in new STEM-related products and industries, and in enhanced national security and enhanced economic vitality. Unfortunately, the situation has changed significantly in recent times with fewer students studying STEM areas and entering the STEM workforce. It is interesting to note that the new chief education officer at NASA, the associate administrator of education, is former Astronaut Leland Melvin, clearly an excellent role model for students.
Why Mars? One of the major questions in all of science is whether there is/was life outside of the Earth. After Earth, Mars is probably the most likely abode for life in the Solar System. Is there life on Mars today? Was there life on early Mars? If so, what is the structure and chemical composition of this life? Is it similar to life on our planet? Answering these questions is a very challenging task for robotic missions to Mars. Today, 35 years after the Viking landing on Mars, some life scientists are still debating the results and interpretation of the Viking life detection experiments. The discovery and analysis of life outside the Earth is a very challenging endeavor and requires the presence of human explorers/scientists for unambiguous results.
It is generally believed that Mars has experienced catastrophic climate change over its 4.6 billion year history. Scientists now think that early Mars was more hospital and more Earth-like than present-day Mars. Today, Mars has a very thin atmosphere with a surface pressure of only about six millibars, comparable to the pressure of the Earth's atmosphere at an altitude of about 100,000 feet (For comparison, the surface pressure of the Earth's atmosphere is 1,013 millibars). Early Mars most probably possessed an atmosphere considerably denser than its present-day atmosphere. The surface of present-day Mars is devoid of liquid water. However, photographs of Mars from orbit and from the surface suggest that early in its history Mars possessed abundant and widespread surface liquid water in the form of lakes, rivers and even planetary-scale oceans. What processes or mechanisms caused Mars to experience catastrophic climate change? How did Mars lose the bulk of its atmosphere? How did Mars lose its surface liquid water? Does climate change on Mars portend similar changes on our planet?