It looks like Russia and the European Union are hopping on the “send robots to putter around Mars looking for life” bandwagon.
I don’t want to malign the technological advances spurred by these projects. If you have doubts, consider that they actually pulled off this plan without a hitch. I would argue that demonstrating similar ideas that live just over the tinfoil hat line (many of my engineer friends were sure the skyhook was doomed to failure) is the sort of thing NASA should be doing.
However, the motivations behind these Mars life-seeking missions are flawed.
In this post, my former labmate Joe Shoer does a good job summing up the problem with the current wave of Mars missions from a science perspective.
Here’s my take on the folly of the current obsession with robotic mars missions from a historical and economic standpoint as well:
Imagine if instead of a profit-seeking human (Columbus), Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had sent a spice-finding robot (ColumBot) instead. ColumBot would have landed on Hispaniola, deployed its impressive array of spice detecting instruments and sent back messages that concluded that while it might be possible for spices to have grown in this environment in the past, there weren’t any there now.
Columbus landed on Hispaniola and came to the same conclusions as ColumBot after a few weeks, instead of months or years. Unlike ColumBot, he had a human brain, creativity, senses and need to validate his mission (he had skin in the game.) Driven by these uniquely human factors, he realized that while there weren’t any spices, there were many other exploitable resources* that he used to establish the monetary value of his discovery.
Which of these two explorers, Columbus or ColumBot, would have spurred further exploration by the Spanish and driven the French, English and Dutch all to compete with them? Do you really want waves of ColumBots to be the only explorers on Mars?
*These resources unfortunately included the people living there, but if we discover enslavable aliens, that shifts the conversation entirely.