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With so much happening on planet Earth in peril, are humans truly prepared to reach Mars?
"One Strange Rock," a National Geographic television series that debuted on March 26th, sets out to show viewers what makes the Earth unique among other planets in the solar system, and the conditions it took to foster life on the planet. As part of the series – produced by Darren Aronofsky and narrated by superstar Will Smith – several astronauts give personal anecdotes and perspectives about the planet based on a place few humans who have actually visited outer space.
"One Strange Rock" illustrates the idea that Earth has several frontiers humans have yet to conquer, and functions as a love letter of sorts to the planet at a time when humans have their sights set on redder pastures. Expectations are heightened over efforts to reach Mars – which, if SpaceX founder Elon Musk has his druthers, could happen as early as next year – with eventual human colonization seen as a real possibility.
The Red Planet is "a hard place to get to," Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space and a former commander of the International Space Station, told CNBC at a press conference recently. "Personally, I do not think we'll ever get to Mars with the engines that exist now. We will need something better in order to make that leap of distance."
He added that the voyage itself would take a year, and was fraught with potential risks. "No matter what goes wrong in that year, you can't go home. That's like condemning a lot of people to death, because a lot could go wrong."
With that in mind, CNBC recently asked "One Strange Rock's" contributors to share their thoughts on the idea of humans departing Earth for life on Mars. Several of them believed that our planet still holds its own unexplored mysteries, and lessons for venturing beyond Earth's orbit.
Earth is "at risk [so] we definitely have to take a better job of taking care of what we have before we put too many resources into getting to other planets. If we destroy our home, we're no longer earthlings. First and foremost, personally [speaking], we have to take care of our home. Through space exploration, most of what we do is look back at ourselves, and going to Mars will reveal more about what it means to be an earthling and a human."
"The more we learn about Mars the more fascinated we become. Mars has generally been the source of aliens that are going to invade the Earth. Even in the popular imagination Mars is associated with life, but scientifically it's a place where maybe … it's a place that could potentially support human life. Technologically, economically we have a long way to go. Mars is really hard."
"Life needs to spread beyond this world, because there can always be another catastrophic event that will end life here as we know it now. … Exploration has to continue so that we can continue. Philosophically … it's important that we expand" beyond the Earth's atmosphere, she said.
"If we don't get our act together here, we certainly aren't going to figure out how to go to Mars and live, because we have to understand the microbiology. We're not going to be able to terraform Mars without really understanding what's happening here on Earth, which we are destroying really, really rapidly. ... We still have things that we need to explore here."
"We already should have been on Mars! I think that we want to explore and keep going, especially now with these private companies."
A trip to Mars is projected to take place sometime within the next 20 years, but Massimino thinks humans should try someplace closer. "I think [back to] the moon is where we should go."
"I like the John Kennedy speech where he said: 'We choose to go to the moon … not because it's easy, but because it's hard.' … That's my answer to anything. I don't care where we go: Mars, the moon or whatever, but just do something that's hard to push technology and bring out the best in man."
Correction: An earlier version misspelled Darren Aronofsky's last name and misstated his title. He is executive producer of "One Strange Rock."