Columnist Leonard David

Humans on Mars could conduct far better science than any machine

astronauts in bulky space suits on mars swing pickaxes at red rocks
Mars beckons. Human explorers can maximize the science output for unraveling the complex nature of the Red Planet. (Image credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings)

The future of Mars exploration will be greatly enhanced by humans that make the sojourn to the Red Planet. The work that could be performed by astronaut crews on that distant world would far outstrip what mechanized Mars machinery can attain - but certainly at a far greater cost.

To that end, NASA is blueprinting a moon-to-Mars strategy that identifies science as one of three pillars upon which the agency's quest for a sustained human exploration throughout the solar system is built. What's now being plotting out is the architecture for achieving that goal. 

NASA moon-to-Mars architecture workshops are being held later this month, hosted by the Space Studies Board of the National Academies. According to a statement by Nujoud Merancy, Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA's Strategy and Architecture Office within the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, the space agency is searching for views on science and technology investments that can help lead to a sustainable human return to the moon and dispatching crews to Mars

Related: NASA establishes 'Moon to Mars' office to help get astronauts to Red Planet

"Our partnerships with industry, academia, and the international community are helping NASA define an architecture that empowers us to boldly explore the moon, Mars, and beyond," Merancy explains.

Tale of the tiger team

Arguably, the science conducted on the surface of Mars by astronauts will have the most impact on the scope and scale of that architecture. Therefore, deciding on science priorities warrant early attention. 

Recent history demonstrates the issue of shoe-horning in science tasks for astronauts too late.

That is a central message from a recent study for the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), one that suggests how and where on the Red Planet humans can maximize exploration and science output. 

A MEPAG Tiger Team on Mars Human-Mission Science Objectives was led by Bruce Jakosky, a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, Colorado. Their report was transmitted to NASA late last year.

Proactive, not reactive

"I think the real value of this report is if we can get NASA to pay attention," Jakosky told in an exclusive interview. "We see a lot of work going on in planning the architecture for human Mars missions. But science isn't on the table at all. My goal as chair of the Tiger Team is trying to get science into the discussion," he said.

Fitting science in around the edges is not the way to do world class science, Jakosky said. NASA needs to be proactive, not reactive in incorporating science, he said.

NASA's Apollo program of the 1960s into the early 1970s, noted Jakosky, had scientists, engineers, and astronauts working hand-in-hand, shoulder to shoulder to make sure science was done.

"And that's something that I don't think we see today in Artemis or in Mars," Jakosky said. "It's got to be an iterative process in order to make sure that the science and the engineering will work together," he said.

Going deep! Drilling into the Red Planet is on tap in the future, sure to be a scientifically rewarding task.  (Image credit: NASA)

Science-based landing sites

Jim Head, a noted planetary researcher at Brown University, was a member of the Tiger Team report group. 

"NASA is currently updating the objectives for the Moon-to-Mars initiative with the strategy of 'architect from the right/execute from the left,'" Head said. That translates into, he added, "work backwards from the defined goal to establish the complete set of elements that will be required for success. Execute development of all elements in regular fashion, integrating as you move right according to the established architecture."

Head said that the MEPAG Tiger Team report was designed to be a part of NASA strategy, in that the group considered things like the optimum science-based Mars landing sites, the types of activities and stay-times required to accomplish goals and objectives, and potential robotic partnerships. 

"These types of considerations provide significant insights into feed-forward for the lunar component of NASA's Moon-to-Mars initiative, the Artemis phase," Head said.

Real-time interaction and adaptability 

Mars holds many clues to early solar system history and how terrestrial planets sustain habitats and life, said Bethany Ehlmann, a member the Tiger Team report group. She is a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and director of the Keck Institute for Space Studies in Pasadena, California.

For many types of geologic science, especially those involving lots of interaction with terrain like sample collection or deep coring, Ehlmann said that human capabilities are "uniquely enabling" because of real-time interaction and adaptability. 

"Humans on an EVA activity can accomplish in a few hours data acquisitions and sample collections that have taken rovers years," Ehlmann told "With NASA's Moon-Mars initiative underway, it is important to think about what supporting instruments and technologies need to be developed now to equip our astronauts for doing outstanding science at Mars."

Ehlmann flags the reference missions called out in the study report that exemplify a range of possibilities, like astronauts investigating icy locales, accessing cliffs, exploring higher altitudes on Mars or having expeditions investigate caves. 

Those example cases underscore how individual, specific missions can achieve high-value science. 

Human explorers on Mars will expand their scientific reach by melding machine and muscle. Show here is a crew member operating an Ingenuity-like helicopter to expand the zone of study.  (Image credit: NASA)

Catalyze discussion

Jakosky as the Tiger Team chair notes that the list of cases called out in the report do not represent all potential missions, but "should serve to catalyze discussions within and between the science and exploration communities." 

Missions suggested included projected astronaut treks to Utopia Planitia, Valles Marineris, as well as Cerberus Fossae.

"Any landing site is going to provide spectacular science results. I think that's clear," Jakosky said. "Mars is a very diverse, geologically complex planet. One site isn't going to tell us everything we want to know about Mars."

One scenario involves crews going au naturel on Mars. That is subsurface study of natural caves — with many Mars caves already previously spotted. 

There's need to characterize the habitability conditions of a cave environment, be it the availability of water, energy sources and chemical potential. But also to determine if signatures of life are present in the cave environment, the report adds.

Human explorers could land near a target cave and remain within the habitat for much or most of the mission. They would teleoperate sample retrieving robots deployed to a cave floor. Doing so would eliminate the operations time lag compared to running a robotic investigation from Earth, "a multiple orders of magnitude decrease in decision time," says the report.

The huge canyon that is Valles Marineris is arguably Mars' most dramatic landscape and offers a scientific bonanza for future expeditionary crews.  (Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Why humans on Mars? 

The report spells out how humans can advance a valuable palette of science objectives at the Red Planet. Clearly, crews can conduct on-the-spot field measurements, execute local area mapping, and gain, below their boots, subsurface access. 

Selection of the highest value samples for return from the surface, subsurface, and atmosphere and getting those specimens into labs on Earth is crucial, the report explains.

First of all, explorers on Mars can emplace local and regional networks of info-gathering devices to capture processes operating on Mars during and between missions. 

From orbit or on the surface of Mars, teleoperating robotic assets as precursors to human struts across Mars can probe sites out-of-reach of a human landing site, or to assess a rich diversity of terrains and habitats.

Back here on Earth, there's need for ground controllers to operate the infrastructure needed to ensure human safety and efficient operations at Mars. It's also vital to loop in the enhanced capabilities for doing science thanks to teams of on-the-Earth specialists.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has experimented with virtual and mixed reality environments as ways to improve exploration of Mars.   (Image credit: NASA/Human Centered Design Group at JPL)

High-priority science

One key signal from the study is site selection to do science with humans at Mars. 

"Given the complexity of Mars' evolutionary history and the tremendous diversity of environments on Mars, no single site can address all of the high-priority science goals," the report stresses.

A central study finding is that vital science can be accomplished by humans on Mars "that would be much harder or impossible to do with robotic spacecraft; the capabilities of human missions have the potential to change both the objectives and the priorities — and can definitely accelerate the pace — for Mars scientific exploration."

As for science work on Mars, the Tiger Team flagged a trio of high-level objectives:

  • Astrobiology - Determine if life ever developed on Mars and the nature of habitability;
  • Climate and volatiles – Unravel the processes and history of water and climate change on Mars; and
  • Geology/Geophysics/Geochemistry - Understand the physical record of planetary evolution from planetary formation until today and the processes driving the evolution of the surface, crust, and interior of Mars

"What sets Mars apart from the rest of the solar system is the potential for life, the history of water, and the nature of the geological processes and similarities to Earth," said Jakosky. "Secondly, it is the relative closeness of Mars and the relative ease with which we can explore it," he said.

Community input

Very familiar with the report findings is Scott Hubbard, a former director of the NASA Ames Research Center, now an affiliate in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University. 

Hubbard served as NASA's first Mars exploration program director in 2000, earning him the title of "Mars Czar" as he restructured the space agency's Mars program in the wake of several failures to explore the planet.

In Hubbard's view, the MEPAG Tiger Team report is an "excellent example of science objectives-based human exploration goals for Mars," Hubbard told 

Hubbard said it is his hope that both NASA and the forthcoming National Academies study will utilize the Tiger Team report as "important community input."

The full text of the "Report Of MEPAG Tiger Team On Mars Human-Mission Science Objectives" can be read online.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.

  • danR
    I think the experts have started out with the idea that they want to see humans on Mars and then argued toward that thesis.

    By the time even SpaceX' enthusiastic, accelerated, timeline gets exploratory boots on the ground, their own robotic autonomy program will have followed an exponential curve toward exploiting every kilogram of mass transported and landed for the purpose of actual doing science, instead of keeping suited meat healthy and alive.

    By 2028, I expect every program will come around to a "bots on the ground" mindset instead of (initially) crewed exploration landings.
  • Classical Motion
    It's not worth the overhead. The only success would be getting there. Pride is the only payoff. Very expensive pride. Sending multiple probes is much more sensible. And allows multiple destinations to be explored. Much more discovery. And sample the entire system, not just one planet. Cost/benefit isn't there yet. Let private money pay for pride.

    Just a taxpayer opinion.
  • billslugg
    I still don't understand why we need to put humans on Mars. They say field geologists can perform much faster than robots, but they don't say why. No detail other than faster on-site decision making due to the 20 minute time delay. So just put the humans in orbit around Mars. They have a bad case of boots on the ground fever.
  • Continental Vet
    Mars’ surface is contaminated with perchorates. I don’t know that colonists could overcome that fact. Having said that, I believe a series of manned landings could, in relative short order, accomplish scientific research beyond our greatest hopes. Human scientists can cover ground and perform work in one day that would take robots months or even years. With the rapid advances made by private spaces industries continuing at a breakneck pace, I’m looking at you, SpaceX , we will put boots on the ground sooner rather than later. The moon is our launch pad. I hope I live to see it.
  • Classical Motion
    But it's ok to have months and years of human body decay and damage to get there? That cancels any human labor advantages easily. The moon yes, Mars no. There is no up side for manned Mars. At present time.

    The first manned Mars flight will need much more shielding, rotation for gravity, and orphans to man it. Death is extremely possible. There is no plan B. It works or it dies. Mars is not an oasis or a refuge. We are not even close to manned Mars.

    True science knows this. Mars is PR science. Possibility Relations science.
  • billslugg
    If humans were ten times faster at field geology then just put ten times more robots there. The cost is still one tenth that of a human. The people steering this are in it for the glory of landing a person. Fame, fortune, People Magazine, endless funding from Congress, catches the "American Eye". It's endless. No thanks, give me cheap, expendable robots.
  • Atlan0001
    Humans stay on Earth, robots to space. Short-term seems cheap, long-term is disaster and extinction . . . the malignant downside costs of no human breakout -- no life breakout -- into a frontier universe . . . of no birth out . . . beginning building up in the short term. Beginning yesterday and inexorably building!
    Mars, though, can and should wait for L-point orbital stations and colonies, including ships, shipbuilding, and shipping, first. Otherwise, Mars colonization (Mars direct) will exist under a single thread: A "Damocles sword." One 'Nixon moment' and dead.
  • JMB
    Why is every forum on Mars with humans is missing the most extreme part of this that destroys everything? The Solar Radiation on Mars is horrendous and doesn't have any Magnetic Field to dissapate the radiation which is Lethal to humans. Even the thought of astronauts walking through the landscape is crazy and these people will all end up with mental radiation burnout and this is nothing trivial!
    I mean it literally fries your brain cells and it's so bad but not much can protect against it unless you want a suit full of water.
  • Rob77
    As a human race we are all adventurers, explorers at heart I believe. Using robots for everything takes away from our humanity I feel. I understand that there are things robots can do better, but by putting feet on Mars, I am reminded of JFK's quote - "why go to the moon"?
  • JMB
    That's fine if you don't mind severe brain & chromosome damage from solar radiation that's unchecked by anything. All that's said is you need PROTECTION on Mars from this thing that ruins the human body severely.