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When Will Humans Visit Mars? This Physicist Says There Are 'Real Plans' For The 2030s

In July, Mars will make its closest approach to Earth in 15 years. Astronomers are hoping their observations will contribute some useful information about the weather and surface conditions on the red planet.

The mystery of Mars continues to fascinate Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, futurist and author. Kaku (@michiokaku) joins Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson to talk about how soon humans might travel to Mars, and other advancements from the world of science.

“Things that were once the stuff of science fiction are now being translated into real rocket science,” Kaku says.

Interview Highlights

On how soon we might have humans on Mars

“Well, let’s be honest about it: It takes only three days to go to the moon. So the Moon is a hop, skip and a jump from the Earth, and I personally believe that at some point in the future, people will honeymoon on the moon.

“Mars … is a whole other ball of wax. Two years for a round-trip mission to Mars, plus of course all the problems of weightlessness, micrometeorites, radiation, stuff like that. But there are technical problems. We of course have sent robot probes to Mars, quite a few of them in fact, and there are real plans now to go to Mars in the 2030s, first to the moon — according to a new presidential directive signed in December — first to the moon, using the moon as a base, and then on to Mars perhaps around the 2030s. And maybe after that, mining the asteroid belt.”

On the long-term plan for Mars

“First we want to begin the process of terraforming Mars. If you could somehow in the future raise the temperature of mars by 6 degrees, you could induce an artificial greenhouse effect and it would take off all by itself. Some people think that if we have satellites, solar satellites that orbit Mars and reflect sunlight down to the polar ice caps, then you could melt the polar ice caps and then rivers and seas could once again flow freely on the surface of Mars like they did about 3.5 billion years ago. And then bioengineered plants would thrive in the atmosphere — plants love carbon dioxide, and it may be possible to genetically modify algae and plants that’ll grow in that environment. And then mining operations could also take place. The first thing you want to mine would be ice, to extract drinking water — once you purify it — and also break it up into oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel and for breathing purposes.

“The key word is self-sustaining: You don’t want a Mars colony to be a drain on the U.S. economy. You want it to be self-sustaining, to have its own mining, to have its own agriculture and its own industries. And of course, this is more long-term. We’re not talking about this happening any time soon. But the basic groundwork is being laid now, even as we speak.”

On which will make it to Mars first: a private company or a government space agency

“That’s the key question. You see back in the ’60s, it was all done by the government and things were really, really expensive. In 1966, the Apollo space program budget soaked up 5 percent of the entire federal budget. That’s incredible. You cannot self-sustain a space program with that kind of cost, 5 percent of the federal budget. Now prices have dropped dramatically. In fact, the movie ‘The Martian,’ starring Matt Damon, cost $100 million. But the Indians sent a probe to Mars for $70 million. So a Hollywood movie to Mars costs more than actually going to Mars — that’s how much the price has dropped.

“Normally it costs about $10,000 to put a pound of anything into orbit — that’s your weight in gold. Think of your body made out of solid gold. That’s what it costs to put you just into orbit around the Earth. However, Elon Musk has claimed that he could bring down the cost by a factor of 10. And so that would open up outer space for development. And remember that these people have a vision for the future. Elon Musk’s vision is that we become a multi-planet species, because after all, the dinosaurs did not have a space program, and that’s why the dinosaurs aren’t here today. So we need a backup plan, says Elon Musk.

“But then Jeff Bezos, richest man in the world, head of Amazon, states that he wants to make the Earth into a garden. He wants to put polluting industries into outer space so the Earth becomes a park, a garden, that basically is a testament to a clean environment, to a new vision for the planet Earth. So we have Silicon Valley billionaires coming in with a new vision, new energy and of course, big bucks.”

On the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and what it means to be able to detect gravitational waves

“I think it’s tremendous. Eventually we’ll put LIGO into outer space, that’s called LISA — laser interferometer space antenna. It is three satellites connected by laser beams that detect gravity waves from the Big Bang itself. We’re going to get baby pictures — baby pictures of the infant universe, maybe a trillionth of a second after the instant of creation. Now the pictures of the Big Bang that you see on the internet are pictures that were taken more or less when the universe was 300,000 years old. But we don’t want that. We want baby pictures of the universe leaving the womb at the instant of creation. And physicists like myself hope to pick up evidence of an umbilical cord, an umbilical cord of the infant universe as it emerges from the womb connecting it to a parent universe.

“The point I’m raising is that, with gravity wave detectors in outer space, we may just have the possibility of detecting the pre-Big Bang universe. If you pick up radiation at the instant of the Big Bang, or just afterwards, you could run the videotape backwards. String theory is what I do for a living, that’s my day job, and string theory is a theory that goes even beyond Einstein and goes before the Big Bang. And string theory makes several predictions as to what the pre-Big Bang universe was like, and we may be able to run the videotape backwards on LISA to detect radiation before the instant of creation to give us an inkling of the pre-Big Bang universe.”

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This composite image made from a series of June 15, 2018 photos shows a self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover in the Gale Crater. The rover's arm which held the camera was positioned out of each of the dozens of shots which make up the mosaic. A dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover's location. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
This composite image made from a series of June 15, 2018 photos shows a self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover in the Gale Crater. The rover's arm which held the camera was positioned out of each of the dozens of shots which make up the mosaic. A dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover's location. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)