Dr. Robert Zubrin is an internationally renowned astronautical engineer. He is the author of over 100 technical papers on the disciplines of astronautical engineering and space exploration. He is also the author of The Case for Mars and Entering Space, and Entering Space both books strongly advocating man’s extension into space, with the Mars as the next outpost for human civilization. A former senior engineer at Lockheed Martin, Zubrin is the president of The Mars Society, http://www.marssociety.org, and founder of Pioneer Astronautics.
This interview was conducted by Haym Benaroya and took place on 12 June 2002.
founder of The Mars Society, you have created a group that is making
real inroads in man’s return to space, in particular, to Mars. What led
you to create this group? Do you view this as a sacred mission?
I had written my book The
Case for Mars in 1996 and received over 400 letters of support from
people of all backgrounds. The common theme in all these letters was the
question “how do we make this happen”? In 1997, the Mars Pathfinder
Mission generated tremendous public interest and enthusiasm. These two
factors more than anything else convinced me that the time was right to
endorse and organize a manned mission to Mars. If all these people could be
pulled together and focused around this goal, then travel to Mars is
possible. This work is very important to me. Its goals are fundamental to
human nature. It is a challenge our generation should embrace.
has been much criticism of NASA during the past decade on many fronts. What
do you think went wrong with NASA? Has the NASA organization we all know
become the wrong model for manned exploration and colonization of the solar
problem is not really with NASA. The problem is with the political class. A
trip to Mars is decided at the Presidential level, not by NASA. Since
Apollo, no Administration has given NASA a mission worthy of its abilities.
In the 60s, we went from no manned space abilities to the Moon. There were
also many unmanned space probes, and much of the technology we use today in
space was developed in the 60s. Many young people were inspired by Apollo,
the spirit, the dream, and the technology, inspired enough to enter science
and engineering. These are the people who planted the creative seeds that
continue to bloom to this day.
In the 90s, we have some achievements: Hubble, space
station, and interplanetary probes. But the level of accomplishment is one
to two orders of magnitude less than those I just described. NASA has been
without significant goals. Without goals there can be no progress.
The purpose of The Mars Society, reproduced below, can be
encapsulated into: Outreach, more government funding, and more private
funding. Do you believe that it must be a public/private partnership? Is
there a scenario where a 100% private venture can succeed?
would be happy regardless of how a manned trip to Mars was funded, private
or public or both. Public funding is the easiest but the politics is very
difficult. With hundreds of millions of supporters for Mars in the US and
Europe, it can be done privately.
I would say the most important reason is the one
That is the ultimate reason.
What are the major stumbling blocks to progress?
political stumbling blocks are the most difficult – rallying enough
What is your realistic time frame for the first humans on Mars?
we decided today to embark on this mission, then it can be done in ten
years. But I believe we will be on Mars in twenty years.
There is a debate within the space engineering community between a permanent
manned return to the Moon, and the plan of your organization that believes
Mars is a better site for a permanent manned presence beyond Earth. How
would you summarize the best arguments of both sides?
The main reason the Moon is put forward is
because it is close. Mars is rich in resources – we have been reading
about the frozen oceans of water under the surface of Mars. When the Vikings
traveled to Greenland, they went to the closer territory. But it was
resource-poor and therefore not much came out of that exploration. The
Europeans went after the resources and when they landed in America they
succeeded because of the resources.
Going beyond the very specific topics we have discussed so far, what
do you see as the great unanswered questions in science today and in the
I would think that the major questions for
humanity to address are:
Why are so
few scientists and engineers seen in positions of policy authority? Where is
their education going “wrong”?
Essentially there is a division in the
characters of people, between those searching for the truth and those
searching for power.
Where do we
lose the scientific and mathematical interests of our junior and high school
students? Especially women? Do you think an enhanced space program,
especially one centered about Mars, would change these trends?
That is an important question. If you go to most
space conferences, such as those organized by AIAA, or the Space Frontier
Foundation, you will see a 10:1 ratio of men to women. If you attend a Mars
Society meeting, you will see a 2:1 ratio of men to women. This is because
Mars is more than about technology, smoke and rockets, it is about life,
about discovery, about whether there was life on Mars, and about creating a
new branch of civilization, a new society and spreading life. These are
subjects of intrinsic importance to women.
When did you realize that you wanted to study engineering and science? Can
you see yourself doing anything other than what you are doing today with The
I started reading very early. At the age of 5 I
was reading science fiction. When Sputnik happened I was exhilarated.
Everyone was horrified that the Soviets were ahead of us, but for me this
event meant that everything that I was reading about in science fiction
would become a reality.
What is an appropriate educational path for someone who wants to become a
part of the coming exploration of space, or even for travel to and
settlement on Mars?
Certainly all young people should study math and
science if they want a direct hand in the coming exploration of space. On
our Mars Arctic Research Program, of great importance are geologists,
environmental microbiologists. Also, people who can fix things. It will be
very important to have people who have designed the equipment we are using.
They need to have both theoretical understanding as well as a practical
knowledge of the equipment.
What is your advice to a teenager just entering high school: about reading,
about science, about achievement?
All people need to follow their own vision.
“Eat to live, not live to eat.” You only live once and have a chance to
accomplish something with that life as opposed to becoming a slave to the
perceived needs of the moment.
I’ve had a chance to speak
with many people with very high incomes, to express my ideas and describe my
work to stockbrokers, corporate lawyers, these types of professionals. Many
have come up to me afterwards and expressed envy at what I was doing. While
they are making a lot of money, they are always looking at the clock,
waiting to go home. I go to work to create new technological innovations to
get people into space. If what I am working on succeeds, it will matter
maybe 500 years in the future or a thousand years in the future. I have a
great life. What could be better to have as a job than to do something that
others can only do as a hobby? Follow your vision.
tremendously enjoy looking at the concepts of space artists, such as
Rawlings. I also enjoy reading the science fiction of people such as Kim
Stanley Robinson (who has also been interviewed elsewhere on this web site).
I would think that such visual and written creations could be very
motivational. What do you think are the roles of art in society? Does art do
something for society that cannot be done by anything else?
Art enables people to see with their eyes what
previously could only be seen with the mind.
How are art
and science intertwined? Does science have a role in art? And what about the
role of art in science?
Art can motivate scientists and engineers, like
the art of Rawlings. Visual art shows us how life on Mars will look like.
Stories try to take what science tells us is true, build upon that and
extrapolate today’s facts into tomorrow’s possibilities. These all
inspire scientists and engineers.
Where are the greatest challenges today to American society? Are you
optimistic with the trends?
am fundamentally an optimist. Despite all the problems we see today, life is
generally better for most people today than it was 50 years ago. The trend
is towards the better. I believe in progress. Human creativity has
tremendous power to advance the human condition, and there are enough very
talented people around that society and civilization will win out. People
are very adaptive. Consider the current conflict with the Islamic
Fundamentalists. They have an ideology that denies human reason, that the
human mind cannot distinguish between right and wrong, that you have to read
a book written hundreds of years ago to establish the truth. They hate
western civilization because it uses the free human mind. They are impotent
against that civilization. Free inquiry and freedom are the strength of the
West. This allows the West to win over those who do not share those ideas. A
society committed to progress will see progress, and cannot be stopped.
If you could
solve just one of humanity’s problems, which one would it be?
Poor education worldwide. People have to use
their minds, learn history, to prepare for the future, and to learn how they
can participate in that future.
The Purpose of the Mars Society
To further the goal of
the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. This will be done by:
Starting small, with
hitchhiker payloads on government funded missions, we intend to use the
credibility that such activity will engender to mobilize larger resources
that will enable stand-alone private robotic missions and ultimately human
The following declaration was ratified and signed by the 700 attendees at the Founding Convention of the Mars Society, held August 13-16, 1998 at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado, United States.
Founding Declaration of the Mars Society
The time has come for humanity to journey to Mars.
We're ready. Though Mars is distant, we are far better prepared today to send humans to Mars than we were to travel to the Moon at the commencement of the space age. Given the will, we could have our first teams on Mars within a decade.
The reasons for going to Mars are powerful.
We must go for the knowledge of Mars. Our robotic probes have revealed that Mars was once a warm and wet planet, suitable for hosting life's origin. But did it? A search for fossils on the Martian surface or microbes in groundwater below could provide the answer. If found, they would show that the origin of life is not unique to the Earth, and, by implication, reveal a universe that is filled with life and probably intelligence as well. From the point of view learning our true place in the universe, this would be the most important scientific enlightenment since Copernicus.
We must go for the knowledge of Earth. As we begin the twenty-first century, we have evidence that we are changing the Earth's atmosphere and environment in significant ways. It has become a critical matter for us better to understand all aspects of our environment. In this project, comparative planetology is a very powerful tool, a fact already shown by the role Venusian atmospheric studies played in our discovery of the potential threat of global warming by greenhouse gases. Mars, the planet most like Earth, will have even more to teach us about our home world. The knowledge we gain could be key to our survival.
We must go for the challenge. Civilizations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. The time is past for human societies to use war as a driving stress for technological progress. As the world moves towards unity, we must join together, not in mutual passivity, but in common enterprise, facing outward to embrace a greater and nobler challenge than that which we previously posed to each other. Pioneering Mars will provide such a challenge. Furthermore, a cooperative international exploration of Mars would serve as an example of how the same joint-action could work on Earth in other ventures.
We must go for the youth. The spirit of youth demands adventure. A humans-to-Mars program would challenge young people everywhere to develop their minds to participate in the pioneering of a new world. If a Mars program were to inspire just a single extra percent of today's youth to scientific educations, the net result would be tens of millions more scientists, engineers, inventors, medical researchers and doctors. These people will make innovations that create new industries, find new medical cures, increase income, and benefit the world in innumerable ways to provide a return that will utterly dwarf the expenditures of the Mars program.
We must go for the opportunity. The settling of the Martian New World is an opportunity for a noble experiment in which humanity has another chance to shed old baggage and begin the world anew; carrying forward as much of the best of our heritage as possible and leaving the worst behind. Such chances do not come often, and are not to be disdained lightly.
We must go for our humanity. Human beings are more than merely another kind of animal, -we are life's messenger. Alone of the creatures of the Earth, we have the ability to continue the work of creation by bringing life to Mars, and Mars to life. In doing so, we shall make a profound statement as to the precious worth of the human race and every member of it.
We must go for the future. Mars is not just a scientific curiosity; it is a world with a surface area equal to all the continents of Earth combined, possessing all the elements that are needed to support not only life, but technological society. It is a New World, filled with history waiting to be made by a new and youthful branch of human civilization that is waiting to be born. We must go to Mars to make that potential a reality. We must go, not for us, but for a people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians.
Believing therefore that the exploration and settlement of Mars is one of the greatest human endeavors possible in our time, we have gathered to found this Mars Society, understanding that even the best ideas for human action are never inevitable, but must be planned, advocated, and achieved by hard work. We call upon all other individuals and organizations of like-minded people to join with us in furthering this great enterprise. No nobler cause has ever been. We shall not rest until it succeeds.