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A mission to Mars may drive us crazy – but if we can’t terraform it then does it even matter?

Photo by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio via Flickr Creative Commons

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It’s hard to describe the overwhelming power of space better than when Carl Sagan did for Time magazine: “There is perhaps no better a demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

Though he was referencing Voyager 1’s 1990 “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth, a tiny blue blur taken from 6 billion kilometers away, the general feel of human insignificance is often a theme when discussing space exploration. During long journeys into the cosmic unknown, astronauts not only tackle external stressors, but must also push through internal challenges as well. Isolation, depression, claustrophobia – all of these feelings can bubble to the surface and affect the mental morale of a mission.

In order to study and prep for these circumstances, NASA funds a multitude of months-long simulations that aspiring astronauts can volunteer for, including the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission. HI-SEAS participants spend up to a year in Mars-like circumstances, where their team behaviors and communications are observed and documented.

But as psychologically difficult as a Mars mission may be, it’s still possible that we may make it there one day – but for what? Though Elon Musk thinks otherwise, the future for humans on Mars is murky. To many space daydreamers’ disappointment, a recent study calculated CO2 levels on the red planet and determined it to be impossible to terraform with current technology.

So what next? Is there still a possibility for making Mars habitable? And how to we make it there without falling into a space version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”


Christopher Edwards, professor of planetary science at Northern Arizona University; co-author of the paper “Inventory of CO2 available for terraforming Mars

Kim Binsted, professor at the University of Hawaii and founder of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS), an annual NASA-funded Mars mission simulation

Brian Ramos, former crew member of HI-SEAS Mission 5 (2017)