We Should Explore Mars So That Our Students Will Keep Dreaming Big

Why send humans to Mars? Because as Gene Roddenberry said, “We are on a journey to keep an appointment with whatever we are.” As a space science educator, a lover of Star Trek, and someone who played “astronaut” on the playground, sending humans to Mars is more than just a good sci-fi fantasy, it is an imperative for humanity.  Mars is the first outpost in the colonization of other worlds. And thanks to countless orbiters, landers, and rovers… the more we learn about it, the more Mars beckons.

For the past 16 years, I have endeavored to find ways to connect students’ natural curiosity with the wonders of our solar system and the universe, and always with an eye looking back at Earth. As a STEM/STEAM educator, I believe that we must teach science as the greatest adventure story of all time; and allow and inspire students to dream beyond their house, their town, and their own Earth-bound experience.

Listen to any scientist, engineer or entrepreneurial visionary who is passionate and committed about going to Mars and you will see that the parallels between a human endeavor to Mars and an education that elevates STEM/STEAM skills are remarkably similar. Getting to Mars and creating a skilled labor force for our nation is all about building with the same organic material. And I am not talking about aluminum, steel or titanium. I am talking about the robust material of minds… young, brilliant, future scientific and engineering minds. Howard Bloom, founder, and chair of the Space Development Steering Committee says it this way: “Rockets roar into space using two forms of fuel.  One is the liquid in the rocket’s tanks.  The other is the fuel in the human heart.  Yes, big dreams are fueled by the raw stuff of the human spirit:  excitement, awe, and desire.  Those emotions power us to do the impossible.  So when you’re looking for a goal, find the one that excites you and your fellow humans the most.”

And what is more exciting than the possibility of donning your spacesuit and hopping in a rocket headed roughly 140 million miles away from Earth to solve mysteries awaiting and to make discoveries on the Red Planet that are yearning to be known?

All you have to do is introduce students to Mars and the possibility of going there, have them imagine walking on its surface, invite them to think about how to make the planet habitable, and you’ll have students leaning forward, asking questions, and getting curious. Ask, did life arise independently on Mars and then fall into total extinction or does some tiny remnant remain in the water ice of a deep martian crater? Conversations, hypotheses, and scientific investigation will then commence.  Let students know that the best explorers aren’t rovers but humans, and how what takes a rover weeks to analyze could be done by human hands and minds in mere hours. As they ruminate on the fact that the finest computer ever built sits atop their shoulders,  show them Ray Bradbury’s, The Martian Chronicles, and amazing space illustrations by Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman, and Rolf Klep. Watch as they become enthralled with Mars.  It is an inspiration by visual stimuli. Then ask the students to write, draw, graph, or calculate their version of what a 21st-century manned mission to Mars would be like, and there will be a virtual martian dust storm of ideas.

We must teach science as the greatest adventure story of all time; and allow and inspire students to dream beyond their house, their town, and their own Earth-bound experience.

A brilliant girl named Resaiah heard me say in a presentation that twelve men had walked on the Moon, but no women. The next day she handed me a story she had written called “Astronaut World.” In it, she wrote about a future mission when the people of Earth landed on Mars and a woman named Resaiah took her first bold steps on the martian surface. This young student had a moment of engagement and an experience of wonder, and she used creativity to envision herself in the future. As Socrates once said, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”

In May, at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C, scouts from the area were invited to attend a workshop to imagine and create their version of a settlement on Mars. Later that evening, three scouts (average age 11) came on stage and in great detail shared everything from how they were going to melt the polar ice caps, to where they would store the water, to how they would use greenhouses to grow food, to the underground tunnels they would build to traverse between habitats to avoid the harsh effects of radiation, to where they would park their rovers: creative enough to imagine to be the ones who will first step foot on Martian soil.

Many challenge the expense of a human Mars mission when Earth already has so many problems.  But where would we be without the knowledge developed by America’s space program in the past 50 years? GPS, better robotics for human prostheses, nanotechnology, smartphones and the list goes on. Kaci Heins, Education Supervisor for Space Center Houston, says, “We must go to learn the story of Mars and to push the next level of science, technology, engineering, and math. It is problem-solving some of the toughest challenges humans can face in a relentlessly harsh environment.”  When we address the challenges related to human space missions, we expand technology, create new industries, and help to foster collaborations beyond our borders. Furthermore, the knowledge and innovations created for human survival on Mars will present solutions to solve problems and challenges we humans face here on Earth such as food insecurity, water shortages, alternative energy/fuel sources, among much else.

And that’s what makes Mars such an effective STEM/STEAM tool. Communicating the thrill of exploration is as good as it gets when educating students about what a future on Mars might entail. Curiosity is in our DNA. We humans have always been driven to explore the unknown, discover new worlds, push the boundaries of our scientific and technological limits, and then push further. There is an insatiable thirst of the soul to challenge the confines of what we know and the only way for human exploration on Mars to be a reality is if we inspire the students of today to be the scientists, technologists, engineers, artists, mathematicians, programmers and astronauts of tomorrow. We must set our course for Mars, and we must do it now.

Ask the man for whom Pluto was his goal for 25 years, “Why Mars?” and Alan Stern, Chief Principal Investigator of the New Horizons Mission, will tell you, “Because the world needs new frontiers, because humans are explorers, and because kids of every generation need role models and inspiration. Why Mars? Because it will bring out the best in our species.”

This piece is part of a special op-ed series, curated in partnership with Explore Mars, in which contributors from diverse fields such as science, education, policy, business and culture answer a simple question: “Why Mars?” For more, follow the links below or visit exploremars.org.




White House Science Fair 2016