Viewpoint: Should we send humans to Mars?

Mars exploration

Related Stories

In the second instalment of his two-part feature on human missions to Mars, Dr Alexander Kumar - who has been overwintering at Concordia Station, Antarctica - asks whether we should send people to the Red Planet given our poor record managing this one. Read the first part here.

Much like the interior of Antarctica, Mars remains inhospitable.

For humans to live on the planet for any significant period of time would require the recycling of water and air, along with other so-called "life systems".

At Concordia station in Antarctica (my current home) we use "grey water recycling" - taking the water generated from domestic activities such as laundry, bathing and dishwashing and recycling it on-site for other uses. This mirrors the system used on the International Space Station (ISS).

But there are even grander ideas that could further extend the duration of human habitation on Mars.

Whether or not we find Martian life, there is a long-standing wish to "terraform" the Red Planet. This would involve artificially transforming the climate and surface to enable humans to live there without life support systems.

In his Mars Trilogy, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson documents the process of inhabitation and colonisation, causing a chain of events that turn the Red Planet into a green one and later a blue world.

A human presence on Mars will inevitably change the environment. It was HG Wells who first identified the possibility of humans unknowingly "spoiling" other distant planets through bio-contamination - bringing their bacteria and other potential microbial colonists with them.

I believe the lessons we have learnt in the past century through polar - and in particular Antarctic -exploration and science are very relevant. Our delicate polar regions are continually threatened by climate change and so often used to forecast and track the state of our planet.

Mr Robinson maintains that when it comes to investigating the challenges of sending a manned mission to Mars "Antarctica is the best analogue, not the Wild West or anything else".

Contaminating Mars

John Ash from the Scott Polar Research Institute commented: "Forward contamination is a critical factor in space exploration, and much may be learned by the work being done in connection with the penetration of Antarctica's hidden ice lakes. Of course, it is critical not to contaminate samples that may offer scientific proof of extraterrestrial life; but there are also legal obligations."

He is referring to the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Ray Bradbury In Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, humans take refuge on Mars

Alongside the potential for "forward" contamination, our own contamination of the new, previously undisturbed environments we visit, there is the potential of "backward" contamination also.

There are many other ideas - methods employed by past polar explorers using a depot system to cross Antarctica's empty, hostile and unknown interior, could be adapted to a manned mission to Mars, where a series of supply depots could be laid in orbit between Earth and Mars, accompanied by sending reserve supplies equipment into Mars' orbit or to a planned landing site on its surface.

Like the polar expeditions led by Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton, this would add a factor of safety, reassurance and ability to resupply and makes repairs en-route, for the brave crew travelling into the unknown.

Over the coming decades, there could be another call for astronauts, this time for a manned mission to Mars. Similar to Ernest Shackleton's fabled newspaper advertisement, with Nasa's recent budgetary cuts, recruitment for an interplanetary mission's crew might also spell out: "Men and women wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold and long months of complete darkness."

The late science fiction writer Ray Bradbury left us with an echoic and stern warning in his story The Martian Chronicles where the colonisation of Mars becomes a necessity for human survival - with humans fleeing a troubled, broken and atomically devastated home planet Earth.

If our species follows its current course, a biblical apocalypse could be a potential outcome.

Extinction event

In describing the possibility of standing on the surface of Mars himself, Tim Peake tells me: "It would be the most exhilarating feeling imaginable."

He adds: "At some point, hopefully many, many years in the future, the Earth will suffer an event that human life cannot tolerate - that is to say, an extinction event.

"If mankind is to survive as a species then in the long term our future existence lies in colonisation of other planets or moons. I believe this is something that can be achieved, but it will require many years of progressive steps before we are capable of colonisation.

Concordia Research at remote outposts such as Concordia may yield lessons for future missions to Mars

"We live on a fragile planet in a highly dynamic Universe, so manned exploration of space is not just about our quest for knowledge but also an insurance policy for the future."

Many sceptics will undoubtedly question why any country would choose to invest in future space exploration, including a manned mission to Mars, while there are so many unsolved problems on our planet, from HIV to malaria to poverty.

They would be absolutely correct. Trust me, I'm a doctor who has travelled far and wide, and have witnessed the worst effects of poverty, disease and war.

The last words of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, addressed to the public in his diary, echo loudly: "For God's sake look after our people."

Sitting in Antarctica 100 years on, dreaming of Mars, I would update Scott's advice by factoring into his equation, the impact (unbeknown to him) of humans on Earth over the past century.

I would reiterate: "For God's sake, look after our people…. and also our planet."

Caring is sharing

Should we be so frivolous by our excessive nature, and be trusted to visit, contaminate and perhaps colonise another planet when we seem so incapable of conserving and looking after our own home world?

Maybe this continuing lack of care for the planet and its people will one day become the reason we leave Earth for once and for all.

However, alongside my experiences as a doctor, I also travel the world as a scientific explorer.

On a large lonely wooden cross on top of a hill in Antarctica, overlooking a route taken to the South Pole, someone inscribed the words "to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield".

These words, borrowed from Sir Alfred Tennyson's Ulysses poem, had been left by the party who located Scott's tent in memory of the expedition team's legacy.

Among them, my own hero, the doctor Edward Wilson, whose dreams did not become a graveyard leave a blazing trail and legacy of science to inspire future generations.

Only by pushing mankind to its limits, to the bottoms of the ocean and into space, will we make discoveries in science and technology that can be adapted to improve life on Earth.

If the origin of life as we know it arose from a Big Bang in a distant area of the Universe, perhaps the solutions we seek to our problems on Earth may also lie there.

Failing to strive, seek or find would be an even greater tragedy - and represent a giant leap backwards for mankind.

You can follow Doctor Alexander Kumar's current experiences in Antarctica at his website.


More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I think it's our duty as humans to destroy as many planets as possible. Why do you think we are here in the first place? To do GOOD? Wake up and smell the machine-guns.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    All your worlds belong to us

    We'll get rebellious planets too, like the American war of independence, but breaking away from planet earth

    Islamic planets
    Christian planets
    Capitalist planets
    Socialist planets

    Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Better to be a king on Mars, than a servant on Earth

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    If we don't we fail as a species. Although in this day and age of profit at all costs no matter what, then I doubt we'll even go back to the moon. You get more for fraud than you do for murder in our current society so what does that tell us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    If you looked at all of the discoveries made by all the rovers that NASA has sent to Mars, these could have been done by a human geologist in half a day.

    Makes you wonder why a concerted effort hasn't been made before now. Looking at the state of the worlds finances, I don't imagine a government / multi-governmental funded mission will get the chance any time soon

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Mars is ours to do with as we please,as is the moon and any other surface we can survive on. If there's life there already,then that might be a different matter,I'd concede. I don't buy into the nonsense that it has to be preserved for scientists to play with. Antarctica and the Arctic are different - interference and development there might cause catastrophic world wide effects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    @30 kaybraes

    Yes ! It could be our first space penal colony where we could get rid of criminals, chavs, immigrants, politicians who cannot tell the truth , fathers who don't support their children civil rights lawyers and members of Liberty.


    Are you suggesting that they are all put behind Mars Bars?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I wonder, other than provide spectacle and draw publicity, what could be achieved by sending a canned ape to Mars that could not be achieved by sending a machine?

    I hope we further explore our local solar system and perhaps even beyond during my lifetime, but I'm ignorant of the benefits of doing so burdened with our meat-bodies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    We should send humans to Mars for scientific purposes & not planetary colonisation as it's inhospitable, requires billions to build a ship that fits few people. The money should be invested in sustaining human life here i.e. diseases. We should only go to planets that contain Earth conditions &perhaps use test tube baby method as a means to fit hundreds of thousands unborn to start life there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Elon Musk gave an interview to BBC's Discovrey program about a manned trip to Mars. He stated SpaceX would do so in the next 10 to 20 years.

    He envisioned that in the future it would be possible to offer consumers a round trip to Mars for around $500,000.

    Personally, I wouldn't bet against him doing it.

    You can read Musk's interview @

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    To be or not to be, THAT is the question get back to work

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.


    Yes ! It could be our first space penal colony where we could get rid of criminals, chavs, immigrants, politicians who cannot tell the truth , fathers who don't support their children civil rights lawyers and members of Liberty."

    Better still, send the intolerants there and leave them to demonstrate their 'superiority' amongst themselves so we can get on with making a fairer world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The money being squandered on this should be spent on conservation to protect the other animals the human breeding projection is destroying

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    4. Bill Walker

    I wish we could send the whole human race to Mars... the 8,000 mile diameter spaceship on which we are all travelling...

    I wish we could improve the education of the general public so they might have a clue about what they are commenting on. You might like to check your facts on how big the Earth is before showing your ignorance to all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Re: vbc - where's the link to first instalment - it was yesterday.. search kumar 21 sept. in the BBC News search box.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Of course we should go to Mars!

    Our ancestors crawled out of the sea, it's just the family tradition to keep exploring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Space exploration is the ultimate journey to discover worlds outside our own. It saddens me that people feel the need to drag politics and world problems into it, as humans we should strive to achieve more, whatever it is.

    Obviously it's hardly going to be a priority any time soon and rightly so. All I know is if the first human lands on Mars in my lifetime I'll be listening with pride and joy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I like it here, thanks. Mars does not even have fresh air or water.
    Please send Cameron, Clegg, Salmond and Blair. I do not mind their being deprived in the name of science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Yes ! It could be our first space penal colony where we could get rid of criminals, chavs, immigrants, politicians who cannot tell the truth , fathers who don't support their children civil rights lawyers and members of Liberty.


Page 18 of 20


More Science & Environment stories



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.