According to Conway, there is a “disconnect” between the desire to travel into space and the desire to understand it. This “disconnect” is a more fundamental difficulty for NASA than decades’ worth of budget cuts. It’s a contradiction that’s built into the agency’s structure, which includes a human exploration program on the one hand and a scientific program on the other. The planning for Mars missions so far has been left largely to the science types, but sometimes the human-mission types have insisted on getting involved. Whenever they’ve done so, Conway writes, the result has been “chaos.”  

Conway puts himself on the side of science, and, as far as he’s concerned, humans are the wrong stuff. They shouldn’t even be trying to get to another planet. Not only are they fragile, demanding, and expensive to ship; they’re a mess.  

“Humans carry biomes with us, outside and inside,” he writes. NASA insists that Mars landers be sterilized, but “we can’t sterilize ourselves.” If people ever do get to the red planet—an event that Conway, now forty-nine, says he considers “unlikely” in his lifetime—they’ll immediately wreck the place, just by showing up: “Scientists want a pristine Mars, uncontaminated by Earth.” If people start rejiggering the atmosphere and thawing the regolith, so much the worse.  

“The Mars scientists want to study won’t exist anymore,” Conway writes. “Some other Mars will.”

Rather odd that this essay on different ideas about colonizing Mars doesn’t mention that every one of these different scenarios, and different attitudes, is explored deeply and brilliantly by Kim Stanley Robinson in his Mars Trilogy.

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