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Nasa chief: Getting humans to Mars key to survival of the species

Nasa chief says humans must reach the Red Planet, and learn how to survive there. Photo: NASA

By Alok Jha: Science Correspondent

Getting humans onto Mars is key to the survival of the human species, says Nasa administrator Charles Bolden.

“A species like humanity has this insatiable appetite to go farther and faster and learn more and we need to be able to survive off this planet as much as on it,” he told me.

It's definitely one about survival of the species. The more we can expand humanity across the Solar System, the more we can understand about our own Earth.

– Nasa chief Charles Bolden

Mars’ formation and evolution are comparable to Earth’s and we know that at one time Mars had conditions suitable for life, Bolden told an audience at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London today.

What we learn about the Red Planet may tell us more about our own home planet’s history and future and help us answer a fundamental human question – does life exist beyond Earth?

– Nasa chief Charles Bolden

Nasa has been on the path to Mars for several decades with earlier Mars rovers and orbiters but President Obama made the challenge explicit in 2010 when he said Nasa should send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s.

There is a lot of technology to develop and test before humans can get to (and from) Mars safely. Nasa’s plan is to test its technology on the Moon.

We'll go back into Lunar orbit with an asteroid and develop some of the techniques and perfect the technologies that will be needed - life support systems etc - so that when the astronauts make the 8-month trip to Mars, they'll be in very resilient, reliable systems.

– Nasa chief Charles Bolden

Bolden is under no illusions about the challenge laid down by Obama. “Mars is really, really hard. It's a distant planet. There is a risk from radiation to the crew - not on the way there and back but on the long-term impact on the life of a crew. Technologically we don't have everything we need yet."

Fortunately for us, he wants Britons involved in the grand plan. “Many of the learned astronomers we study came from right here, much of the earlier work in aeronautics was done right here in the UK,” he told me after his lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society.

“You have always been among the leaders when it came to taking things from the unknown and making team known and I think the UK is a perfect partner to venture into the farther reaches of the solar system with.”

You have always been among the leaders when it came to taking things from the unknown and making team known and I think the UK is a perfect partner to venture into the farther reaches of the solar system with.”

– Nasa chief Charles Bolden

The one hiccup he forsees in Nasa’s plans is the availability of a suitably-trained workforce to carry out the generations-long challenge.

Where are we going to get the engineers and scientists 10-20 years down the road who are going to take these visions we've established with the ISS and commercial crews? If we don't get young people today into [science and technology] fields then there's going to be this void.

– Nasa chief Charles Bolden

His message to children who might one day want to be among the first astronauts on Mars is simple.

What would I tell a kid? Dream big dreams, let your imagination run wild. Recognise that what you want to do is very difficult and you've got to prepare yourself for it and the best way to do that is to get into school take hard subjects, get as much technical knowledge as you can.

Dreams don't come true by wishing for them, dreams come true by people having a vision, being willing to work for it and people continuing to work day in and day out.

Have fun along the way and stay focused on your dream.

– Nasa chief Charles Bolden