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Illustration by Mike McQuade

On the morning of Nov. 30, 1911, 15 days from becoming the first human to reach the South Pole, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen walked out of his tent and into a scene from “Frozen.” The fog of the previous days had lifted. The sun was shining. The snow — miles and miles of snow in every direction — sparkled and shone. “The huge new land lay there bathed in the rays of the morning sun,” he wrote in a style that deviated sharply from his usual bachelor-farmer brevity. “A wonderful fairy tale in blue and white.”

A little more than a month later, competing explorer Robert Scott would look upon the Antarctic wilderness with a decidedly less twinkly eye. The snow — miles and miles of snow in every direction — had grown horrifyingly monotonous. “Great God! this is an awful place…,” Scott wrote.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott (right).

Captain Robert Falcon Scott (right).

Amundsen and Scott were working from the same set of facts. But facts are only a starting point. Different people can come away from the same data with wildly divergent ideas about what it means, why it matters and what to do next.

As it was with Antarctica, so it is with Mars, another desolate, windswept, bitterly cold1 frontier. In the five decades since the uncrewed spacecraft Mariner 4 snapped the first close-up picture of the Martian surface, humans have amassed a valuable collection of data describing what life — real or hypothetical — on the red planet is really like.

We know that Mars has polar ice caps, seasons and storms (and that every three Martian years or so, those storms become big enough to engulf the whole planet). We know that a 100-pound person would weigh 37 pounds on Mars. We know its atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide (a gas that makes up less than 1 percent of Earth’s atmosphere). We know it shares some aesthetic similarities (red dust, majestic buttes) with southern Utah. We know that it was probably once a lot more like Earth than it is today. We know that reaching it will cost billions of dollars — and that actually living there is extra.

But what we do with all of this information is still up for debate. For every Elon Musk, dreaming of regular passenger service to the Valles Marineris, there’s someone like Charles Cockell, professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh and author of the peer-reviewed journal article “Mars Is an Awful Place to Live.

Latest in this series No One Has Gotten Lucky In Space

As a society, we’re at a possible point of divergence. A new presidential administration means a potential shifting of NASA’s priorities — what will matter most to President Trump? Meanwhile, more private companies are looking to the stars; does that mean they’ll push us toward other planets? We can follow the dream of interplanetary colonization and look at Mars through Amundsen’s eyes; or we can see it as Scott saw Antarctica and decide it’s more prudent to stay home. We at FiveThirtyEight will be rolling out a series of articles over the next few weeks aimed at bridging the gap between those two viewpoints. From the history of human space exploration to the technology it will take to get to Mars, to sex and reproduction of hypothetical colonists, we want to dream big and think critically, and we want to take you with us.

Footnotes

  1. The minimum daily temperatures recorded by Scott dipped as low as the -40s Fahrenheit, a temperature that isn’t just exceptionally cold, it’s exceptionally cold by Antarctic norms. This once-in-15-years cold snap has even been blamed for Scott’s failure to make it back from the South Pole alive. Amundsen finished earlier and missed the temperature plunge. In contrast, on Mars’s equator, a summer night can dip to -100 F.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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