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.

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.

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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.

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.

A very well-known Mars scientist said that he can do in two hours what it takes a rover to do in six months, because he’s on the scene, he can understand the geology, he can figure things out that we didn’t know before, whereas a robotic mission – we assume we know the environment, and in a lot of cases, we don’t.

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Let me talk about mobility. The National Research Council Space Studies Board, which oversees NASA by law, has said, “Mobility on a planet is the most important single parameter.”

We just completed the first Mars marathon, about a week ago NASA’s Mars exploration rover, “Opportunity”, traveled 262 miles. It completed a marathon run on Mars. Unfortunately, it took 11 years.

With what we’re planning to send to Mars, for human exploration, we can do that in a day or less. So we have great mobility.

Why send humans to Mars? Why become a two planet species? Well, there are threats to humanity, there are threats to planet Earth. I don’t want to spend much time at it other than to say there’s catastrophic climate change. We know that the climate is changing.

We don’t understand where we’ll end up at this point. We know Mars experienced catastrophic climate change.

The second point I want to make: synthetic biology experiments and natural pandemics. You know, we’ve recreated, humans have recreated the poliovirus in recent years. Finally, perhaps the most likely, are cosmic impacts.

There are things circling the Solar System that can impact with Earth; I’m talking about asteroids, comets and meteors. There’s an example, earlier this year, a large asteroid passed within 3 times the distance of the Earth to the Moon, 31 times that distance, and that’s a near miss. There are many, many asteroids and objects in the Solar System, as you’ll see in a second.

Well, what we’re looking at is the asteroid belt. The yellow thing in the middle is called the Sun, then there are four circles – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars – and then on the right side you see Jupiter.

But you see those hundreds and hundreds of green things? They are asteroids. They’re chunks of material that range from 10 feet to several hundred miles across. One of them actually came in over Russia. How would you feel if you’re in your car and all of a sudden – This is a cam recorder in someone’s car.

This object that hit the Earth in 2013 had the energy of 30 nuclear weapons. Thirty nuclear weapons. It destroyed many hundreds of buildings and injured many thousands of people. So, there is a dream.

Now I will speculate. Once we send humans to Mars, the next likely step is to take plan of Mars and terraform it. Terraform is a bad word; planetary engineer it to look like planet Earth. This is our oddest conception of Mars becoming a second Earth, and I’ll talk to you about that in a second.

Once it’s terraformed or planetary engineered, there’s a potential second home for the human race. You know, dinosaurs were the major form of life on Earth for many millions of years, until about 65 million years ago, Yucatán Peninsula, a large asteroid hit, now, that was a Wednesday, and the rest is history.

The dinosaurs became extinct. The dominant form of life on planet Earth for millions of years became extinct.

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How do you make Mars habitable?

I’m going to tell you a simple way. There are several other ways. The first is: we know there’s a lot of frozen water and a lot of frozen carbon dioxide below the surface of Mars, and if we can get a large solar reflector heat up the surface, it will cause that carbon dioxide and water vapor to enter the atmosphere.

It turns out that those are two of the most efficient greenhouse gases that we know about. So we release the frozen water and the frozen carbon dioxide, put it in the atmosphere. Once that happens, we seed the surface of Mars with photosynthetic plants.

The photosynthetic plants convert carbon dioxide, which is the major gas on Mars. We’ll convert it to a gas called oxygen, and gas called oxygen is useful because humans breathe oxygen on a regular basis.

Once we have oxygen from these photosynthetic plants, oxygen is broken up by solar radiation, – a small amount – and it forms a gas called ozone. Ozone shields the surface of the Earth from biologically-lethal radiation that comes from the Sun, called ultraviolet radiation.

So we form an ozone layer once we have oxygen in the atmosphere. Once we have oxygen in the atmosphere and ozone, the atmosphere is thick enough because we outcast a lot of the carbon dioxide and water vapor, and liquid water can form on the planet and be stable over geological time spans. This is an artist’s conception of Mars today.

This is Mars after terraforming or planetary engineering. I saw a great movie about a week ago – we are not supposed to give plugs – “The Theory of Everything”, the autobiography of Steve Hawking, one of the great cosmic thinkers in the world, in history. This is a quote: “I think that human race has no future if it does not go into space.”

And let me show you how we’re going into space and how we’re going to bring astronauts back to Earth. If I can have the last video, please.

The last video. This is a test in December of last year of the Orion space capsule that will bring humans to Mars. It’s an actual image. This really happened, December 5th. Then, once it’s away from the Earth, it will hook up with the transport vehicle that we’ve already put in orbit around the Earth.

Then that transfer vehicle will take the humans to the surface of Mars. It’s a nine month trip, and this is entering the Mars atmosphere. That’s landing on the surface of Mars, and then, once we’re on the surface of Mars, the astronauts look for signs of life, look for fossils.

We’ll begin drilling to find the climate history of Mars, and then, 500 days later, we return the astronauts back to Earth. They enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

This is a real image. This is under drawing board. It’s going to happen. It will probably be 2033 to 2039 when we’ll do this.

Thank you very much.

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