The societal/historical impact of a manned Mars landing

Let’s set aside for now the technical difficulties of getting astronauts to Mars and look only at the societal/historical impact.

Would landing astronauts on Mars, and getting them back to Earth, be considered THE crowning achievement of humanity up to date, perhaps 10x more so than the Apollo missions, or not so much?

It would be huge and rightly claimed to be the biggest thing to date. Some will cry about the money spent, but that would be beside the point. Everyone will know the name of that first man. Even if he is Chinese.

That might actually be a huge boon to the US. Historically speaking, the US was extremely lazy about science and math. We also didn’t care to fund NASA all that much…

After all, why should we care when those godless communists are obviously so much our mental inferiors? Obviously if we haven’t already done something, they never will. And then Sputnik… Wait, communists can kick our collective butts if we don’t even try? Who could have seen that coming!?

So, much as it would pain me to see the US fall so far behind that someone else beat us to mars (and nevermind how bad it would be if China say claimed it for themselves), it might be the swift kick to the rear the US needs to clamp down and shape up.

In my opinion, successfully creating an artificial general intelligence (AGI) would be a more momentous “crowning achievement”. If the manned mission to Mars happens first, then yes, it will be the greatest achievement of humanity to date. But I have no clue if that will come before or after AGI, or whether either one will even be achievable in my lifetime.

Also, I am inclined to agree that if a manned mission to Mars does eventually happen, it won’t be by Americans. The reluctance of the government to fund science-based initiatives means that such a mission, which is estimated to cost at least 500 billion U.S. dollars, and given the inevitable cost overruns which may lead to a total figure of ~1 trillion U.S. dollars (wild-ass guess on my part) is a political non-starter here.

I doubt that rich moguls, even ones like Elon Musk, are willing to spend all their net worth just to privately fund this mission. However, I can envision an authoritarian country like China being able to push through such a mission over the objections of their populace, for the sake of bragging rights on the world stage.

It would be a great achievement yes, but if it’s just a long term camping trip, then no not much impact and I would argue that Apollo was more of a crowing achievement, though mars is much harder, but perhaps not from a perspective of time and advancement. If it was an ongoing thing, even like a mars base like the Antarctic research station where crews are rotated in/out that would be a larger impact. But I would say the crowing achievement of humanity would would need to be a colony with a path to self sustainability to be the greatest thing since sliced bread IMHO, only supplanted by interstellar or interdimensional travel.

Even if she is Chinese.

I don’t think any space flight accomplishment short of interstellar travel or first contact is going to rise to the level of the social/historical impact of Apollo 11. Even the novelty of that wore off fairly quickly. Anything we do in the field involves or impacts so few people directly that almost any space flight first will have less impact than the current pandemic.

Men went to the Moon and returned in eight days. Everybody could follow along minute by minute, and there was the huge spike in watching halfway through.

A Mars mission would take 50 times as long at a minimum. If one launched today it wouldn’t land before June 2022. Even the landing would be old news by the time they returned seven months later. Sustained interest would be impossible. Space enthusiasts would care; the general public wouldn’t.

Space isn’t a worldwide obsession like soccer. It’s a niche interest like NASCAR. If the Chinese send the mission it would have the impact in the U.S. of badminton.

I suspect that if humans land on Mars anytime soon, it’ll be a join international effort. The expense and risk is mind bogglingly huge.

Except there is no particular impetus for nations to send humans to Mars. The round estimate on the cost of a crewed Mars conjunction class mission has been pretty consistently estimated at the ~$US500B mark (and that is circa 2010 dollars, which would be upwards of $US600B in 2021), and based on the adjunct studies I’ve worked on in the past that is likely an undervaluation of total cost. By comparison, the construction cost of the Large Hadron Collider is about US$13.3B, and the current projected costs to first plasma on the ITER is ~US$65B. Given the various complaints and objections to these programs despite their manifest or potential benefits, it is unlikely that a joint NASA-ESA-JAXA project could come up with a half trillion dollar budget for such a program.

People make a lot of how “inspirational” the Apollo Lunar Exploration Program was but in fact at no time did it have more than 50% approval even among the American public, and there was substantial opposition to it by people who, rightly or otherwise, felt that the money would be better spent on dealing with domestic issues. While the landing and Armstrong’s famous “First Leap For Mankind” was the most viewed television broadcast of the time, funding for the program was already being cut before Apollo 11 left the pad, and the public so quickly lost interest in the lunar program that Apollo 13 wasn’t even broadcast until their famous Ox tank rupture. Most people couldn’t even tell you how many crewed lunar landings there were, who was on them, or what they achieved other than collecting rocks, planting a flag, driving a moon buggy around, and playing a little golf. And while there was genuine scientific benefit in collecting surface lunar samples, we’ve gotten far more information about the Moon’s composition and history by uncrewed orbiting missions.

A crewed Mars mission at an acceptable level of cost and risk will require a significant in-space infrastructure and the development of in-situ resource extraction and utilization so that every consumable doesn’t have to be carried up from Earth to orbit, and an Earth-bound station can maintain regular, high bandwidth communications. It would make far more sense to first develop this infrastructure by remote and/or autonomous operations in space such that we can collect the resources to construct large habitable structures capable of sustaining and protecting a crew of humans for multiple year intervals, and so that the cost and risk of such a mission is less of a desperate leap than a natural consequence of evolutionary technological development.

As for the case of sending a human crew to Mars, although many often argue that people could do so much more and go further than rovers have been able to, they make this claim with the implicit assumption that a crew would be able to operate in an essentially shirt-sleeve environment. In fact, the biggest limitation on the rovers is power; the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers use radioisotop thermal generators (RTG) which start out producing 110 watts of continuous power and decline as the 238Pu isotope decays. A person operating on the surface of Mars would require two or three orders of magnitude greater power continuously for temperature control, CO2 scrubbing, waste processing and recycling, local communications, et cetera not counting instrumentation, vehicular mobility, interplanetary communications, and so forth. A rover built with even a fraction of that amount of power available would be able to whiz around like A.J. Foyt and operate heavy drilling and extraction gear. And all of this is notwithstanding of the fact that humans, which cannot help but playing host to uncounted billions of microorganisms, would inherently represent a risk to contamination of any samples that were taken, whereas a rover or probe can be as thoroughly sterilized as we can achieve (and yet, planetary protection remains a concern by mission planners because even a tiny sample of robust bacteria or fungi could contaminate samples or potentially even survive burrowed in the surface of Martian regolith).

We could literally pepper Mars from pole-to-equator-to-pole with MER-type rovers of progressively improved capability in the time and for far less than the cost of a single crewed mission using current technology, and it would have a greater scientific impact than anything a single crewed mission could accomplish. Even if there were a great “historical impact” of being the first nation or program to land humans on Mars, it simply doesn’t make sense to try to do so without advancing both the state of the art of propulsion and space habitation technology as well as laying out in infrastructure for sustained space exploration. The lesson of the Apollo program–cancelled before it had any chance of going ‘beyond’ the moon in any significant way–is that ‘destination-oriented’ programs get terminated once they achieve that objective. A sustainable program should have a continuous path toward progressive exploration instead of leaping to an objective.


That seems true but I didn’t say we were going to land people there, only that if we did, it’d be an international effort.

I have no expectation humans will walk on Mars in my lifetime, and I intend to live another 40-50 years.

I think an international effort is even more unlikely, at least under any current paradigm.

We could have a crewed mission to Mars in a 20-30 year timeframe by building the infrastructure to support it; the biggest uncertainties are the descent component and ISRU, for which we still don’t have good technical solutions. Everything else (Earth ascent, interplanetary transit, Mars habitation, Mars ascent, return transit) is largely an issue of developing and maturing existing technologies and establishing the infrastructure to support it. Which still doesn’t mean that we should do it, but we could if so inclined. I think there are far better targets for uncrewed exploration even if the specific objective is looking for signs of extraterrestrial life, but Mars has become, in the minds of many, sufficiently ‘Earth-like’ that they desire to ‘colonize’ it and make it a backup planet despite the manifest evidence that this isn’t realistic without magical technology.


I believe it is really difficult to send a crewed mission to Mars, but I think it is almost impossible to bring them back. One of the reasons I hope that Musk egomaniac is successful in his endeavor to go there.
I don’t think people would care that much about a first visit, for a while yes, but I think it would fade fast. But if they found signs of life, something like the fossil of a crab, that would be something. But even mere bacteria might not be enough to have lasting societal/historical impact.
In the case of the bacteria, I am not sure what would be more impacting: that they have the same genes, proteins, aminoacids etc. we do on Earth or if they were different enough (or even completely different, if this is possible and we still are able to identify that as life), hinting at a separate origin.

I’m cynical about this. It only took two Apollo missions before people tuned out and watched reruns of *Leave it to Beaver" rather than follow the most momentous engineering and exploration triumph in history.

We used to have debates about how the world would react if we really discovered life existed off Earth. Some thought it would cause a religious panic, others thought the world would change in various ways. We’d become more humble, more introspective, whatever.

Then during the Clinton administration there was an announcement that a meteorite from Mars had fossilized bacteria in it. Life on another planet! The reaction from the public was ‘meh’. Most probably didn’t even know about it, and those that did just shrugged. Later the story turned out to be false, but for a while people believed it - Bill Clinton even held a press conference announcing it - and no one much cared.

I predict fhat the first Mars mission will get its share of human interest stories before the launch, then everyone will tune in for the launch in case it explodes. Within a week or two into the voyage average people will stop caring about updates until there is a failure or disaster. If all goes smoothly, they’ll then tune in for the landing (in case it crashes), and there will be some interest in historical events like first boot on the ground, etc.

But once the exploration enters the mundane work of science, people will stop caring, very quickly. The biggest noise we will hear will be from the crowd complaining about exploration while there are still problems to solve on Earth. If it’s a NASA mission, future mission budgets will be cut and this will turn into a flag and footprints mission not to be repeated for decades, if ever.

Like I said, I am a pessimist when it comes to public support of space. That’s because I grew up with Apollo and we all thought we were just at the tip of the great adventure in space, only to discover fhat we’d be stuck in LEO forever. If you told people in 1970 that after Apollo we wouldn’t put another foot on the moon for at least 50 years, they would have thought you were nuts.

If we go to Mars to stay, it will be because of boring commercial interests, not because of a glorious international governmental cooperation boondoggle. Because once fhat stops being useful to politicians it will stop.

But we aren 't going to Mars to stay. There’s nothing there to justify it. The Moon is a much better bet for the first permanent base other than in LEO. You might actually be able to make money there. But the public won’t care anyway.

As for history, I think the moon landing will be much more significant, because a Mats landing to most people is just an incremental step while the Moon represented the very first time we left Earth and stepped onto another heavenly body, and because by the time we get there we are going to have massive archives of high definition footage of the surface of Mars so we’re unlikely to be awed by those first images. They’ll look the ones we’ve seen for decades, except with a human in them.

But isn’t that the point of technological advancement? That it becomes mundane in its utility.

The first home pc. The internet. The first mobile smart phone. The first electric car. All are perfectly mundane now but all continually driven by incremental technological advancements. The first manned mission to Mars may be largely a symbolic achievement, but the rest will be driven by continuously improved ROI.

I already don’t care. I looked at some of the pictures from the latest rover, but don’t see the point in a person getting in the picture.

Don’t threaten me with a good time!

I could care less about Mars itself, just this bit is the part that gets me salivating.

I don’t care that people walked on the Moon - not one iota. I adore NASA and the Apollo program because to get a man on the moon, they spearheaded the development of the Microchip (which I’m using right now), the microwave, velcro, and everything else that came out of the effort. My life is vastly improved by the effort put forward to get a man on the moon. I want that for my future children and descendants. I want that for humanity.

It provides the impetus for the R&D that would leap technological development lightyears ahead. We need to get off of Earth (not abandon entirely, but expand beyond). We need to start colonizing the universe as soon as possible. Human lives will be dramatically improved in incomprehensible and unimaginable ways if we start building inter-planetary infrastructure and developing the requisite technologies to do so.

A Mars mission would be in no way comparable to the Moon mission technologically.

The U.S. spent rocketships full of money on the space program, around $300 billion in today’s money. One major reason they needed to do so was that none of the necessary technologies existed at the time. Throwing fistfuls of money at everybody bought them advances in a dozen fields.

A Mars mission will run on as many established technologies as possible because spending WWII level money will be both impossible and unnecessary.

We’re also never colonizing the universe, but that’s another thread.

Possible but unknowable. It is also possible that, if the same outstanding engineers were making other inventions, we could be parsecs ahead.

I think the main factor in speed of technological development is world population. With more people, there is more chance of someone making a sublime invention. Lightyears more chance? No.

If so, Mars needs to be terraformed by robots become any people go there. People-first wastes money that could be spent on actually achieving your goal, if it is possible (and given enough time, I suspect it is)…

Also, there is a high risk of an accident that tremendously sets back the program. Waiting until robotic missions are utterly routine and have, if possible, terraformed Mars, would better achieve your goal…

It’s improbable, but it’s a logical direction to orient ourselves even if we don’t ever reach the goal. We’d get a lot of benefits out of adding this goal to our bucket. It’s not the only goal, because reducing human suffering is also important, but I believe the effort to expand will aide in that as well. It has so far, at least.

We’re in a perilous position at the moment. Humanity is always on the brink of extinction primarily because if anything goes wrong we have all our eggs in one basket. Nuclear war is horrific no matter how you slice it, but it’s a lot less extinction level if all it does is break one of many living spaces rather than all of our living spaces. Same with a plague or meteor or any of the many many things in this universe that can crush our tiny species in an instant.

We risk derailing the thread, but I’d argue that terraforming is… less than optimal.

I personally think that statites around the sun eventually forming a dyson swarm would provide the energy and fusion products we’d need to support megaprojects like O’Niell and McKendree cylinders.

It’s a lot easier to build an ideal habitat than it is to re-purpose a pre-existing one. But the infrastructure isn’t there - namely launch loops for getting material out of earth’s gravity well, a moon base to serve as a way-station for intra-planetary operations, and then all the requisite mining operations to get the raw materials until we have the capacity to just make materials from all the surplus matter and energy we’d harvest via the dyson swarm.

Now, please don’t think I’m a wild eyed idealist, most of this will take centuries, but if we nuke each other to death before we even get started, then that’s all she wrote.