NASA's Journey to Mars went through southern California as the agency hosted its first ever panel July 24 at the San Diego Comic Convention, better known as Comic-Con. "NASA's Next Giant Leap" was moderated by actor Seth Green and coincided with the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11's return to Earth following its historic first moon landing.
To help explain NASA's plans for future human exploration of Mars, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin joined NASA Planetary Division Director Jim Green, current NASA astronaut Mike Fincke and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Systems Engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, whose Mohawk caught national attention during the August 2012 landing of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover on Mars.
Following a rousing standing ovation at the beginning of the panel, a packed room of pop culture and science fiction enthusiasts helped share in a wide-ranging discussion about NASA's legacy, current human and robotic exploration, and plans to send humans to Mars in our lifetimes.
As robotic missions are paving the way for future human explorers, Seth Green opened the panel asking what missions to Mars have taught us so far.
"What we're finding is Mars in its past went through an enormous global change," said Jim Green. "It had a huge amount of water. It's lost most of that water but a significant amount of it is underground. So from a resource perspective, when the astronauts go and they want to bring their water, we're going to tell them 'bring a straw, because we know where to go!'"
Ferdowsi added that in its first two years of operations, Curiosity has already met its mission objectives, confirming that Mars had conditions once suitable for life.
"We basically found out on the rover we had capabilities we hadn't even anticipated," said Ferdowsi. "We can do, essentially, isotope dating and carbon dating on Mars now. And that's something we didn't know we even could do when we launched this mission—that's the crazy part. So now we're going there with these new tools, these new thoughts about how to approach Mars, and we're not only going to find where the cool stuff is on Mars with our rover, but hopefully lead to the next rovers having the right set of instruments so you can go find life."
Turning to science a bit closer to home, Fincke explained the International Space Station is helping NASA learn how astronauts can thrive during long-duration stays in space. That knowledge is needed before designing round-trip human missions to Mars, which could last about 500 days. Fincke added the idea for the orbiting laboratory may have been inspired by popular science fiction.
"This is what's really neat about Comic-Con and NASA—it's a natural fit," said Fincke. There's a lot of fantasy and fiction and inspiration—all the good parts of humanity, using our minds to imagine a brilliant, different, awesome future. And that's what we do at NASA. We try to bring that home. And that's what we did. We had this imaginary space station in the movie 2001 [A Space Odyssey], and other imaginary space stations out there. And we believed it, we fell for it, we thought 'we can build one of those,' and we did."
Having inspired generations of people around the world since his historic Apollo 11 moon landing, Aldrin explained why astronauts should follow in the tracks of rovers on Mars to advance exploration of the Red Planet.
"We have a pretty good record of what [Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity] did for five years," said Aldrin. "What they did in five years could have been done in one week if we had human intelligence around orbit on Mars."
So what could astronauts expect to see while on Mars?
"When you take a look at what we see on Mars, it's absolutely phenomenal," said Jim Green. "There are huge volcanoes the size of the state of Missouri. Huge canyons that if they sat in the United States would go from L.A. to New York, for which any one of the tributaries would make the Grand Canyon look like a piker. The vistas we observe and the things we see on that planet, how it’s evolved, are absolutely spectacular. Those are vistas we want to see.”
He added, "When we explore we do science. When we do that, we explore to survive. That's the next step. Going to Mars. Let's do it!"
Watch the entire panel, which includes discussions on emerging technologies, upcoming Mars missions, the search for life in our solar system, and NASA's progress building the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket that will send astronauts to Mars: