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Home » Dr. Joel Levine: The Exploration and Colonization of Mars: Why Mars? Why Humans?

Dr. Joel Levine: The Exploration and Colonization of Mars: Why Mars? Why Humans?

Dr. Joel Levine


Let me tell you how special this is for me. I’ve worked, as Andy said, at NASA for 41 years.

I was involved in half a dozen successful missions to Mars. I presented over 500 presentations about the results in 50 countries around the world, and yet today is the first time they put makeup on my face before I gave the talk.

So it’s been a unique experience for me, too. We’ve been talking a lot about passion and uncommon – those two words – and I want to tell you my passion. I was twelve years old in Brooklyn, New York and — Brooklyn, New York is known for its Brooklyn onions, as we heard earlier.

I happened to look at a textbook that just came to the library, and I saw something that left the tremendous impression. I saw this picture of planet Mars. It was taken with the Mount Wilson 100-inch telescope in California, and I remember staring at this picture and thinking about another world like the Earth. Is there life on it? What’s this world like?

Because of this passion for Mars, a year later, I was given by my grandmother a telescope, an astronomical telescope, and I started looking through the telescope, looking at Mars. I was born and raised in Brooklyn and the uncommon part of my talk is: here’s a 13 to 14-year-old, thinking he can do astronomy with a telescope in New York City.

But fortunately, this passion remained, and I had a very interesting career of which I’ll talk about. So after my first experiences with a small telescope in New York City, I was offered a job by NASA and accepted it, and several decades later, I was a major contributor to NASA’s plan for getting to Mars. It’s called “The Human Exploration of Mars”, the reference architecture number five; that’s because they did four earlier ones that didn’t go anywhere.

This is the front cover, this is the back cover. When NASA announced that they were going to send humans to Mars and return them safely – unlike some private companies which will just deliver them on Mars and leave them there, we will bring our astronauts back.

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The question NASA was asked is: why Mars? Why do we want to go to Mars?

In 2007, – I was working at NASA Headquarters in the Mars Exploration Program – they asked me to form and co-chair the committee to come up with a scientific rationale. So we spent three years, thirty of the top Mars scientists in the United States, Europe, and Japan, and we came up with a list of about 150 reasons, scientific reasons for getting to Mars.

Because I only have 18 minutes, I can only talk about two of these reasons. The first is: is there past or present life on Mars? Clearly, the detection of life on Mars is a game-stopper, show-stopper, it impacts everything; goes well beyond planetary science.

If we find life on Mars today, and if we can show it’s indigenous life, life that formed on Mars, it will make tremendous advances in our understanding of biochemistry, a molecular structure of life, and it will provide information on the human body, and how to treat diseases that we haven’t even thought about, because all forms of life on Earth – people who come to TED, elephants, giraffes, molecular scale, a biochemical scale – they’re the same.

They’re packaged differently, but it’s basically the same biochemistry, the same molecular structure.

If we find indigenous life on Mars, is it the same? That’s a fundamental question of great importance not only to the planetary scientists, but for medical researchers and so on.

Second overarching question: what happened on Mars? We know that in its early history, Mars was very different than it is today. In its early history, Earth and Mars formed, 46 billion years ago, it was a Tuesday and — the Solar System formed.

We know that early Mars was very Earth-like. Early Mars had a thick atmosphere, it had lakes, it had rivers, and it had an ocean that covered most of the northern hemisphere.

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Today, Mars is very different; Mars is inhospitable, no surface water on the planet, and a very, very thin atmosphere.

What happened on Mars?

And of equal importance: can this happen on Earth in the future? This was just published, less than four weeks ago. This is the early ocean on Mars published in “Science Magazine.” That’s the Northern Hemisphere of Mars.

The blue covered area is an ocean that covered about half of the Northern Hemisphere, and the ocean was at least a mile deep, and that’s a very recent discovery. Scientists know that we have looked at the history of climate on Earth several million years back by looking at ice cores from the Arctic, and Antarctic, and glacial ice, because in these ice cores there are bubbles, and in the bubbles are trapped atmosphere, not today, but when the ice was formed, millions and millions of years ago.

So if we can get an ice core on Mars – we’re talking about 1000 feet deep – and bring it back to a laboratory, we can analyze it, and we can find the climactic history of Mars, and we can for the first time get clues as to why Mars experienced catastrophic climate change.

We know robotic missions can’t do this; too complicated for robotic mission. So, these are just my two overarching questions. This is the northern ice cap on Mars. The history of the climate history of Mars is trapped in the water, frozen water in this ice cap.

Why humans as opposed to robotic missions?

First of all, let me say, after working on a half a dozen robotic missions, we’ve learned a tremendous amount. Robotic missions have been excellent. We have learned much about Mars atmosphere surface, but they have their limitations.

And one of the limitations is that everything that we do on a robotic mission has to be preprogrammed, and preprogramming assumes that we understand the environment. The human explorer has a whole bunch of qualities that are not in machine probes at this point, like: intelligence, ingenuity, adaptability, agility, dexterity, mobility, and speed and efficiency.

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