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Mars or Bust

I love this article:

Mars or Bust, a New York Times piece By JOHN TIERNEY:

President Bush wants humans to go to Mars, which is the best undeveloped real estate left in the solar system. But I'm afraid we won't get there unless he comes to the meteor crater here and puts on a spacesuit.

The crater on this Canadian island 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle is about the closest earthly approximation of the Martian surface, which is why scientists from the Mars Society are roaming it in spacesuits. When I joined them, I quickly learned several lessons about extraterrestrial exploration.

Lesson 1: Be careful sipping water. I began the extravehicular activity by breaking off the tip of the water tube and flooding my helmet. The mission leader declared me the first drowning fatality on Mars, which was a useful reminder of the perils of sending humans to space. But after my reincarnation, I began to see the offsetting advantages.

In one afternoon we covered more ground than either of NASA's Rover robots has traveled in two years. The scientists used all-terrain vehicles to cruise the rocky desert looking for signs of life: slivers of green, beds of fossils. When they spotted something, they quickly dismounted and clambered over the rocks to investigate and retrieve samples.

The Mars Society scientists have tried using robots to explore here, but the machines took 1,000 times as long as humans to do the work, even when they were getting instantaneous instructions from scientists nearby. On Mars the robots would be much slower. They'd have to wait for radio signals to travel to Earth and back, which could take more than half an hour.

If we want to explore much of Mars any time soon, we need to send humans, and they need to be in good shape when they land after the six-month flight. If President Bush put on a spacesuit and a backpack and tried climbing to the top of this crater's ridge, or lifting an A.T.V. out of a crevice, he'd see what's wrong with NASA's plans for Mars.

For decades NASA's doctors have been trying to find some physical therapy to mitigate the effects of weightlessness, but astronauts can still barely walk after six months of it. Meanwhile, NASA has largely ignored an obvious alternative: redesign the spaceship instead of the human body. Artificial gravity could be created during the flight to Mars by twirling the ship.

Such a ship was designed during the 1990's by Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, but NASA just went on watching astronauts' bones and muscles deteriorate in orbit. The zero-gravity research provided a rationale for its chief programs, the space shuttle and the space station - which have always been in desperate search of a rationale.

"Imagine," Mr. Zubrin said, "that Prince Henry the Navigator had sent one ship out in the Atlantic Ocean 50 miles and put sailors there for six months at a time and measured the rate at which they got scurvy - and that was all he did. That would be ludicrous enough. But now imagine he did that even though it was already known you could cure scurvy by giving the sailors limes."

What Henry, the 15th-century Portuguese prince, actually did was to set a goal: reaching India by sea. Instead of paying for never-ending programs that went nowhere - like the shuttle and the space station that Congress keeps financing at the expense of a Mars mission - he rewarded mariners who made progress down the African coast.

NASA has started to buy into that philosophy by offering a few prizes, like a $250,000 reward for the best new glove for astronauts. But it could think a lot bigger: prizes to any public or private groups that build a Mars A.T.V., Mars rocket or Mars spaceship. Even if NASA won't spring for the prizes, there's no reason someone else couldn't afford the tab. The 19th-century British Navy, bound by the same kind of bureaucracy and politics as NASA, foundered in its search for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole because its huge ships got trapped in the ice near here. But explorers like Roald Amundsen and Robert Peary had much better luck with small expeditions financed privately.

Peary had a millionaires' club that paid for his treks toward the North Pole. Mars is a tougher mission, but Mr. Zubrin figures he could get there within a decade for less than $10 billion, a sum that doesn't even require a club of billionaires, when you consider the fortunes of a Paul Allen or a Bill Gates. One angel would be enough to pay for this flight.

Here's hoping it happens!



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 2nd, 2005 08:47 pm (UTC)
As always, I have mixed feelings about this. I would love to see something like the Mars mission happen for romantic reasons, but most every actual planetary scientist I know thinks that this is a huge disruption of years of successful studies and a much bigger risk than Zubrin or any of his people are selling it as. We both know that the risks are much greater than just extended weightlessness. Tierney is soft-peddling the mission.

I keep looking at Zubrin and thinking of Gibson's "Hinterlands" in Burning Chrome. There is a fine line between going to Mars because it makes sense to do so and throwing bodies into the void in the hope of finding something whether they can make it back alive or not. The people I know and trust don't think we have reached the point yet where it makes sense.

And given the collective head space in which the US currently finds itself, I am not at all convinced that this whole Mars mission isn't just a smokescreen to get a military presence on the moon and weaponize space while we can still beat China there.

But, yeah, I would love to see some sort of private space industry at least in orbit.
Aug. 16th, 2005 05:31 am (UTC)
I figure if we're going to dream - we should dream big. I wish I had the intellect to make something happen instead of wait for others look beyond the problems for the solutions, but alas, I am regulated to the sidelines able only to contribute steatfast optimism and the belief there is nothing that can't be done - eventually if you keep with it.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )