Why Mars? An Astronaut’s Perspective

I have dedicated my life to answering the great scientific questions of our time, and to the incredible adventure of space exploration.

by John M. Grunsfeld, Astronaut, Scientist, Explorer

Image Credit NASA
As a young boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was inspired by the nascent space age. At the age of six I declared that I wanted to be an astronaut. My mother thought that was just fine, as it would encourage me to learn science, and besides, there really was no chance I would ever actually become an astronaut. While I watched the Apollo astronauts walking on the Moon, I imagined that I might some day travel to Mars, to do science, of course. Indeed, I felt compelled to study nature, science, and engineering, eventually earning a PhD in physics. As a scientist, I sent experiments to near-space on high altitude balloons as well as into space aboard the Space Shuttle. But the explorer in me still wanted to go to space in person. To the amazement of my mother, in 1992 I was selected to become a NASA astronaut. I had the privilege to fly five missions on the Space Shuttle, including three missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. I have dedicated my life to answering the great scientific questions of our time, and to the incredible adventure of space exploration.

Of all the planets in our diverse solar system, Mars is unique in that it is the only planet where we can some day live in a somewhat similar fashion to the way we live on Earth. It is large enough to have a suitable surface gravity, and has an atmosphere and resources we can use to live off the land. Scientists using the intrepid Curiosity Rover have shown us that billions of years ago Mars was very much like Earth, with fresh water lakes, rivers, and warm salty seas. At about the same time that Mars was very much a habitable planet, life started on Earth. Did life also emerge on Mars? The question of whether we are alone in the universe is for the first time a discrete scientific question we can answer. We are exploring Mars for signs of past or extant life. We are also preparing to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, which might harbor a habitable ocean, and with future large telescopes we will look for signs of life on planets orbiting nearby stars. But Mars beckons us like no other world, and we will exponentially increase the pace of discovery when we have women and men explorers ― planetary scientists and astrobiologists ― on the surface of the Red Planet performing scientific research. These intrepid explorers will also be opening up a new frontier.

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