Blue Mars Initiative sets sights on Mars, encourages extraterrestrial research

Photo by Eric Goodwin / Assistant News Editor

Dozens of professors and MTSU faculty gathered in the Sam H. Ingram Building on Friday to discuss an Office of Research Studies-led research initiative, titled Blue Mars, which centers around Martian studies.

MTSU’s Vice Provost of Research and Dean of Graduate Studies David Butler said he invited faculty from all colleges to the Blue Mars Initiative meeting in order to spur interdisciplinary research.

Butler said the university has an opportunity to begin thinking about research on Mars, once humans arrive in the future. He said he hopes to see MTSU achieve national recognition through a Martian research project.

“This rocket lands on Mars, the doors open up and then the question is, ‘Then what?’” Butler said. “What do you do when you land there? It’s a one-way trip. How do you build a society?”

He said he wants MTSU to be at the forefront of those questions and answers.

“It should be us that starts that conversation,” Butler said.

All attendees introduced themselves and described their own experiences in relation to Mars, which ranged from fascination as a child to collaboration with NASA on previous Martian research studies.

Attendees also addressed the questions they have when it comes to human life on Mars.

“I know this sounds very morbid, but I really think we need to think about when we die (on Mars),” said Kay Beard, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing.

Others explored the concept of deceased bodies on Mars.

“We are going to be food, if not fertilizer,” said Tony Johnston, a Fermentation Science professor who touts a background in fermentation and agriculture. Johnston also said that one of his interests in the subject is bioterrorism on Mars.

Chemistry professor Andy Burden said his biggest concern for the Blue Mars Initiative is whether MTSU will be able to secure the funds necessary to conduct the proposed research and keep researchers motivated.

“Initially, we may see the ability of the university to fund certain projects internally, but I think, ultimately, it’s going to have to be a situation where external funding is going to have to be driving it,” Burden said.

He added that it is crucial for people to be involved in the initiative, regardless of grants from outside the university, and a way to ensure participation is to “keep our imaginations fired up.”

“Even the people who don’t get that external funding will still have ideas from the imagination that will contribute to the entire process,” Burden said.

Burden, like others, said “the interest was already there” in regards to Martian studies. He said that, for his entire life, he has been interested in the relationship between human life and outer space.

Space exploration, for the past few decades, has been largely government-funded. Only recently have private companies like SpaceX and Boeing begun to seize the opportunity to invest in the field. In terms of higher education institutions receiving grant money for space research projects, Burden said he is hopeful.

He explained how private ventures that seek to lower transportation costs to and from Mars will give the government a greater chance to perform research projects.

“Private corporations do have an incentive to provide the ability to get to Mars and stay there in an affordable way,” Burden said. “I think that in the past, the cost of doing science on Mars was largely a cost that had to go through the government, and that limited quite a bit.”

Office of Research Studies Director Jeff Porter laid out a timeline of how Blue Mars would unfold over the coming years. Later this year, another meeting will be held in which participants will present their ideas and take questions from their colleagues. Meetings conducted about once per semester will culminate in a symposium, which Porter said he hopes to see by Spring 2019.

Though the meeting was largely a way to test the waters of interest in the subject, Porter said the Office of Research Studies is adamant about keeping the initiative alive.

“We want to provide enough structure to make sure we get somewhere,” Porter said.

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email

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