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The Space News article NASA continues Mars sample return mission studies

Among those planned missions is Mars sample return, a multi-mission architecture that involves collecting samples of Martian rock and regolith and caching them for collection by a later mission. That mission would then launch the samples into Martian orbit where a spacecraft would retrieve them and send them to Earth.

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will carry out the first phase of that effort by caching samples. Future steps remain undefined, although the agency’s leadership says that Mars sample return remains a priority.

“Certainly, Mars sample return is something that we are committed to as an agency,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a June 6 briefing with reporters. “That’s a civilization-level changing capability, and we want to do it.”

Question: What is a "civilization-level changing capability", and why would bringing samples from Mars back to Earth be one?

Of course if some microbe brought back to Earth from Mars escaped bio-containment and unexpectedly altered Earths' ecosystem, that would certainly be civilization-level changing, but I hope that's not what's being envisioned here!

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  • $\begingroup$ This opens up the ability to exploit resources from distant bodies by delivering them to earth. We wouldn’t be limited to only resources on earth. I’d say that would be civilization-changing. $\endgroup$ – Paul Jun 13 '18 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Paul scientific sample return from space (which is not new at all) and "exploit resources" are completely different. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 13 '18 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ The premise of the question assumes that an unqualified Trump-appointed politically-motivated administrator is correct and sincere in his statements. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Jun 13 '18 at 1:19
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh - not from anything with substantial gravity, except earth's moon. That doesn't prove it cannot be done using only fuel carried from earth - there have been proposals apparently - but it hasn't been done. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton Jun 13 '18 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ If eventually the samples will show without doubt that life forms exist or existed on Mars - then yes, it can be called "civilization changing", I suppose. Currently we don't know is biological life require wery rare circumstances to occur, or it's "only add water" and occurs on lots of planets. So, evidence of life would essentially change our "picture of the Universe and our place in it". Any other potential science results of sample return would not be "civilization changing", I think. $\endgroup$ – Heopps Jun 13 '18 at 9:06
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It's not.

I worked on two incarnations of MSR, and conceived a third, two of which got a good way into development, but none made it to a launch pad. I can say that MSR would be a tremendous scientific advance in the exploration of Mars. However I cannot see how it would be a "civilization-level changing capability", unless the definition of civilization levels is extremely fine, and we'd be going from civilization level 42585201 to civilization level 42585202.

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  • $\begingroup$ Aha! That's the forgotten question! "At the beginning of the 21st century, at what ML (1E+06 level) was Earth's civilization?" We already know the answer of course. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 13 '18 at 3:20

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