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Is a Mars Sample Return Mission Too Risky?

A Public Hearing Case Study


Troy D. Wood
Department of Chemistry
University at Buffalo


Following a public hearing format, this case study allows students to explore the scientific and public policy issues surrounding the advisability of a return mission to Mars for further sampling and, more generally, the question of whether or not there is life on that planet. The case was developed for a non-science majors course called “Great Discoveries in Science” and serves to illustrate the scientific method and the importance of interdisciplinary efforts in scientific research.


  • Examine how the scientific method is used to develop a scientific hypothesis, and how new information is used to reevaluate an existing hypothesis.
  • Illustrate the importance of interdisciplinary efforts in scientific research.
  • Critically evaluate interpretations of experimental data through the labeled release and GC/MS experiments on Viking.
  • Define the criteria needed to establish whether something is living.
  • Raise general awareness of the planned Mars Sample Return Mission.
  • Undertsand how public hearings are used to shape science policy in the United States.
  • Examine cost/benefit analysis and the element of risk in formulating public policy.
  • Develop possible alternatives to the Mars Sample Return Mission as currently planned.


Mars; Mars Sample Return Mission; Viking; search for life; space exploration; NASA

Topical Areas

Policy issues

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods

Dilemma/Decision, Public Hearing, Role-Play



Subject Headings

Science (General)  |   Astronomy  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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