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NASA chief scientist advocate Mars colonies

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A Sunday story in the UK Guardian turned out to be revealing about the thinking at NASA concerning Mars exploration. The space agency’s chief scientist, Dr. Ellen Stofan, in a wide ranging interview, suggested that NASA’s ultimate goal for Mars is to plant a colony on the Red Planet. She linked the idea of a Mars settlement to another often mentioned goal for Mars exploration, the search for extraterrestrial life.

The Mars community is split into two camps. The first, as exemplified by Dr. Robert Zubrin, sees Mars as the site for human colonization of space. Zubrin and others argue that human civilization will only survive and prosper if it has a frontier. If humans set up what he called the second branch of civilization on Mars, then the chance that a catastrophe could end the human race would become vanishingly small. Zubrin is also an advocate of Mars terraforming, essentially turning the Red Planet into a copy of Earth, where people can live without use of pressurized habitats.

The other camp looks askance at the idea of humans colonizing Mars, for fear that the microbes they will bring will contaminate the planet. The idea is to keep Mars as clear of Earth born organisms as possible. Humans, if they venture to the Martian surface at all, would have to be very careful to avoid such contamination. They are certainly opposed to any attempts at terraforming, which would presumably destroy native born Martian life.

Stofan, for her part, recognizes the concerns of contamination. She mentioned that even robotic probes such as Curiosity have to be scrubbed and swabbed extensively so that are as clean as possible. The idea is to avoid taking an Earth microbe to Mars, having it adapt to the local environment, and then “discovering” it, taking it for a native born organism.

Stofan weighed in on the humans vs. robots controversy which has divided the scientific community for decades. As a field geologist, Stofan is firmly set in the pro-astronauts faction. She noted that as wonderful as rovers are, trained geologists would be able to do so much more science on other worlds.