Robert Zubrin

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,, and founder of Pioneer Astronautics.

This interview was conducted by Haym Benaroya and took place on 12 June 2002.

Resonance: As 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?

Zubrin: 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.

Resonance: There 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 system?

Zubrin: The 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.

Resonance: 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?

Zubrin: I 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.

Resonance: In the Mars Society Founding Declaration, also reproduced below, many reasons are given for the manned exploration and settlement of Mars. Of these, is there one overarching reason that would convince the non-space enthusiast? In other words, since taxpayer support is needed, how do we convince the skeptical public that it should support such expensive and high-risk activity?

Zubrin: I would say the most important reason is the one given last:

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.

That is the ultimate reason.

Resonance: What are the major stumbling blocks to progress?

Zubrin: The political stumbling blocks are the most difficult – rallying enough forces.

Resonance: What is your realistic time frame for the first humans on Mars?

Zubrin: If 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.

Resonance: 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?

Zubrin: 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.

Resonance: 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 forseeable future?

Zubrin: I would think that the major questions for humanity to address are:

  • How the Universe began
  • What determines the forms of the laws of physics
  • Are life and intelligence general phenomena in the Universe
  • Can the development of life and intelligence lead to the capability for the emergence of new and unforeseen higher forms of order
  • Does the Universe have a purpose – What is it?

Resonance: Why are so few scientists and engineers seen in positions of policy authority? Where is their education going “wrong”?

Zubrin: Essentially there is a division in the characters of people, between those searching for the truth and those searching for power.

Resonance: 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?

Zubrin: 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.

Resonance: 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 Mars Society?

Zubrin: 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.

Resonance: 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?

Zubrin: 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.

Resonance: What is your advice to a teenager just entering high school: about reading, about science, about achievement?

Zubrin: 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.

Resonance: I 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?

Zubrin: Art enables people to see with their eyes what previously could only be seen with the mind.

Resonance: How are art and science intertwined? Does science have a role in art? And what about the role of art in science?

Zubrin: 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.

Resonance: Where are the greatest challenges today to American society? Are you optimistic with the trends?

Zubrin: I 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.

Resonance: If you could solve just one of humanity’s problems, which one would it be?

Zubrin: 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:

  1. Broad public outreach to instill the vision of pioneering Mars.
  2. Support of ever more aggressive government funded Mars exploration programs around the world.
  3. Conducting Mars exploration on a private basis.

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 exploration

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.

The Mars Society Founding Declaration is now available to those wishing to read it in Danish, Japanese, Dutch, German, Spanish, and French.

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.

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