First stop: Mars?

There has been much in the news recently about different approaches to possible manned mars missions In fact there seems to be almost a surfeit of manned Mars missions. Here are just a few:

  • NASA – plans going ahead to orbit Mars by 2030s
  • Russia – possible launch 2016-2020
  • SpaceX – Elon Musk has said many times the reason he started the company was to take humans to Mars.
  • Mars One – Dutch mission that has attracted over 100,000 applicants for the first attempt
  • The Mars Initiative – publicly funded non-profit organization
  • Inspiration Mars – another non-profit organization

That’s a lot of interest, not to mention multiple funding sources, but it’s a “scattergun” approach – guaranteed to waste resources and duplicate efforts. NASA has talked about returning to the moon, or possibly a captive asteroid, as a stepping stone to future missions, an approach criticized by many who argue that the first goal should be Mars itself.

This argument is summed up nicely on, suggesting that the focus on building infrastructure could push a manned mission into the distant future and mean it’s never achieved. In the article Harley Thronson, a senior scientist in the Astrophysics Science Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, compares visiting Mars to the 19th Century exploration of the American west. He maintains that the “stepping-stone” approach is “a reverse of the historical experience of human exploration.”.

The colonization of the American west was preceded by development in the east of course. Not only that, but the American explorers discussed by Thronson (trappers and frontiersmen) knew that they’d be able to live off the land. They didn’t need to carry every piece of food and water with them (not to mention their own atmosphere). Even with such advantages, many of the colonization attempts failed, often dramatically.

While it’s possible to imagine some issues being mitigated to one extent or another (atmosphere generation, food supplements from native minerals and possible hibernation en-route), these technologies don’t yet exist and maybe never will. And would anyone seriously want to test them out over fifty million kilometers from rescue? That’s over one hundred and forty times the distance of the Earth to the Moon – the farthest humans have ever traveled.

Despite the criticism, the “stepping-stone” method has in fact proved quite successful. From the exploration of the North and South Poles through to climbs up Everest and other similar peaks, the use of “base camps” has permitted humans to penetrate every hostile environment on Earth.

The Apollo missions in the late sixties and seventies demonstrated the weakness of the “straight-to” approach. High in jingoism, sustainability was not considered and the whole effort fizzled out; but not before racking up a cost of $110 billion in 2010 dollars, an average of $18 billion for each of the six landings. While this is peanuts in comparison to the U.S. annual military budget of $700 billion, it’s still a significant amount to fritter away for no long term goal.

If we want to reach Mars (and hopefully other more distant locations) we need to look at the plan from a  professional and sustainable perspective. That can’t be done without using stepping-stones.This doesn’t necessarily mean returning to the moon; or a captive asteroid, but it needs to be something more substantial than more national bragging rights.

My take on a sensible approach is simple; More details in later posts, but here’s a summary:.

  • Stage 1 – Orbital Construction facility
  • Stage 2 – Mars Transporter
  • Stage 3 – Mars Station
  • Stage 4 – Mars Landers
  • Stage 5 – Mars Spaceport

Certainly this plan  would require a lot of cooperation and a lot of money, but aren’t we a species who takes pride in being able to reach further than one man? With all the various Mars initiative’s and national space programs coming together, isn’t this something we could achieve? I’m not naive enough to believe that this would be easy to pull off, but if we as a race want to survive we must move out to live on other planets then it’s the type of cooperation we must achieve. For probably the first time in history we have the technology to make this a reality.

In 1969 Neil Armstrong said “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”. Isn’t it time we lived up to that?


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