Image: "Mission to Mars"
Will human hands ever raise a flag on the Red Planet, as shown in this scene from "Mission to Mars"? The question isn't so much a matter of "if" as "when." Experts say such a mission could be mounted -- but at a cost of tens of billions of dollars.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
NBC News

It would be humanity’s most hostile home. Mars’ thin atmosphere would afford little protection from suffocation or radiation. The temperatures would be chilling, the dust storms blinding. Help would never be less than 30 million miles away. Settlers would surely sometimes ask themselves — as many ask now — “Why were we sent here?” For now, the best answer seems to be that they’d be prospecting — not for gold or oil, but for life.

Discussion of a possible Martian future for humans is very much alive this March, and not just because both the month and the planet happen to be named after the Roman god of war:

  • Science: March has brought a series of eye-opening revelations about Mars: details about the dramatic north-south split in Martian geology and climate, as well as the ancient planet’s south-to-north floods.
  • Policy: Last year’s double dose of failure, involving the loss of the Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander probes, has forced a rethinking of NASA’s current approach to Mars exploration.
  • Culture: The first in a series big-budget science-fiction films focusing on perilous Mars adventures, “Mission to Mars,” came to theaters this month.

The movie sets the first foray to Mars in the year 2020 — which, in light of the recent Mars setbacks, is looking more and more like pure science fiction.

There’s plenty in “Mission to Mars” that would make a planetary scientist or engineer wince. Despite those failings, the film does expose movie audiences to vistas and visions that echo Martian realities.

Like the other highlights of this Martian March, “Mission to Mars” also raises the big question about the Red Planet: Why is this trip necessary, particularly for humans?

More about missions to Mars:

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