By Denise Chow, NBC News, 08.19.18
To say Robert Zubrin is passionate about Mars is a bit of an understatement. The 66-year-old aerospace engineer has devoted the better part of his life to thinking about and encouraging the exploration of Mars.
In 1998, Zubrin co-founded The Mars Society, a Lakewood, Colorado-based nonprofit, and in the years since has become an outspoken advocate for the establishment of a permanent settlement on Mars — and a harsh critic of what he considers NASA’s stagnant human spaceflight program.
Recently, NBC News MACH spoke with Zubrin about why he feels so strongly that humans should colonize Mars and that NASA shouldn’t build a lunar “spaceport” — and why Mars exploration is so deeply personal to him.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
MACH: NASA has sent robotic landers and rovers to Mars. Why is it important to send humans?
Zubrin: Humans are vastly more effective as explorers than robots. The most important questions about Mars are on the search for life, past and present. So we’re interested in fossil hunting and we’re interested in extinct life. Fossil hunting on Earth requires hiking long distances through difficult terrain, involves digging and pickaxe work. It involves delicate work, intuition, following up on clues. This is way beyond the ability of robots.
At the Mars Society, we’ve built two practice Mars stations: one in the desert in Utah and one in the Canadian high arctic. In the Utah station, on one of our earliest excursions, we were practicing exploring the desert as if it was Mars. We climbed down into this small box canyon and we explored it thoroughly and found this very curious-looking rock. We brought it back to the habitat and thin-sliced it, and it was definitely dinosaur bone.
We reported it to the [Bureau of Land Management]. A few years later the BLM gave the data to some professional paleontologist who came and dug the place, and it’s now the largest dinosaur bone find in North America in decades. I have to tell you, no wheeled rover could have even gotten into that canyon because it was a two-meter drop to climb down into it.
As far as looking for extant life, we just discovered subsurface water on Mars — a subsurface lake. If there’s life on Mars today, it’s in the subsurface water. So you’d need to set up drilling rigs. Drilling down a kilometer — that’s like drilling a deep oil well on Earth. These rovers can’t do that. And bringing up the water, and putting it on culture mediums and trying to culture any organisms that are in it and then examining them under microscopes and doing biochemical testing — this is light-years beyond the capability of robotic rovers. If you really want to solve the problem and find the answer to the truth about life on Mars, we’re going to have to send people.
A mission to Mars is one thing, but why should humans settle the Red Planet?
We should settle Mars in order to establish a new branch of human civilization or several new branches of human civilization. That will add to the strength and vitality of human culture as a whole. If you think about the spreading of western civilization to the Americas, the establishment of societies including the one that lead to the United States — Europeans got some profit, the Spanish got some gold from the Aztecs and there were some profits to be made growing tobacco in Virginia.
But the real value that Europe and the rest of the world got out of the United States was a new branch of human civilization that demonstrated the value of democracy and invented electricity and the steamboat and the telegraph and the light bulb, and essentially generated electrical power and airplanes and nuclear power and computers and iPhones.