Earlier this month I attended the 18th Annual Mars Society Convention, held at the Catholic University of America In Washington D.C. It was my 7th Convention in 15 years, and much the same as the others in terms of tone and attendance, but I came away from it feeling much more optimistic than I had after past meetings.
Highlights included a visit during the Saturday banquet, via Skype, by The Martian author Andy Weir. It was fun to hear his perspective on his stunning success of late, and I have high expectations for the film adaptation premiering October 2, though I also had high expectations many years ago when Mission to Mars (blech) and Red Planet (meh) debuted.
What made me more hopeful this year was the sense of modest expectations and goals taking root versus the bold yet unrealistic aim of a full-blown Mars exploration program. Despite Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars program fading with hardly a whimper, at least in terms of a 2018 launch, support for a near-term Mars flyby is growing and I expect there will be a major push for such a mission in the upcoming election cycle.
A Mars flyby would be a major achievement, again showing the world what America and its allies can accomplish. While no landing would occur, most of the “dragons” raised to oppose a near-term mission (radiation exposure, long duration life support, psychological challenges, etc.) would be slain in a single mission. Best of all, compared to other proposed missions, this one could be launched before the end of a president’s second term and could fit well within NASA’s current budget.
Or could it? Is NASA too bloated and risk-averse to be entrusted with such a task? Harrison Schmitt, who spoke at the conference as part of a Moon versus Mars debate with Robert Zubrin, advocated the scrapping of NASA in favor of a new, focused agency with an average age of under 30 like the NASA of the 1960s (the average age in Mission Control when Apollo 11 splashed down was 28). That raises some very interesting questions. How would this agency be created? How would NASA be reduced or eliminated simultaneously, to justify it as an offset or a reduction? Is it even politically feasible, or is it a necessity?