Chris McKitterick (mckitterick) wrote,
Chris McKitterick

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!

Tags: politics, the space age

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