A renewed international space race that many have been hoping for appears to be on the horizon. NASA has announce plans to send humans to Mars, and now Russia has announced it intends to send humans to the Moon by 2029. It has also been reported that Russia is in talks with China to collaborate on a Moon base.
Anything that gets us beyond LEO is a good thing, as long as the Moon doesn’t become the ultimate goal or a significant distraction in getting us to Mars.
In line with NASA’s recent focus on Humans-to-Mars, the agency announced a new contest to design structures on Mars using existing materials found on the planet. The In Situ Resource Utilization Challenge offers a $10,000 first place prize and two $2,500 second place prizes.
Of course, ISRU is a cornerstone of all practical Humans-to-Mars proposals, and it’s nice to see NASA embracing it. Personally I’d like to see a near-term sample return mission with the return powered by fuel derived form the Martian atmosphere, a much bolder ISRU demonstration than some of the proposals currently under consideration for the Mars 2020 mission.
ISRU is so critical because it significantly lowers the cost and (if done properly) the risk of the mission. As NASA indicates:
One advantage of using resources from the planet instead of bringing everything from Earth is the potential to save the agency more than $100,000 per 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of cargo each launch.
As for that $100,000, that’s gotta come down quite a bit, regardless of ISRU. Of course the private sector is making great strides there already.
On Thursday NASA released a plan for getting humans to Mars, the 36 page Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.
The document is definitely much more of a PR brochure than an actual mission plan, but of course this is for public consumption.
It includes three phases: “Earth Reliant” (ISS-based), “Proving Ground” (cis-Lunar) and “Earth Independent” (Mars and vicinity), “each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth.”
It is positive to hear NASA publicly proclaim, “Like the Apollo Program, we embark on this journey for all humanity. Unlike Apollo, we will be going to stay.” It’s quite a reversal from a few years ago where even mentioning Mars seemed to be a taboo.
Unfortunately, this “plan” does differ from Apollo in other key areas: it lacks the political mandate, budget and timeframe to provide a reasonable chance at success, at least in our lifetime. This isn’t NASA’s fault, of course; it’s a political reality that must be overcome.
Other problems include the plan’s attempt to justify past expenditures and accommodate other, irrelevant initiatives. The role of ISS is certainly larger than it needs to be, asteroid capture is unnecessarily included, and apparently Solar Electric Propulsion will be playing a role. Too many things that don’t have a lot to do with getting to Mars.
There’s also no mention of a Mars fly-by mission. Such a mission would be achievable within NASA’s current budget and more importantly within two presidential terms. It would also significantly advance and provide a real “proving ground” for many of the critical technologies mentioned in this document. Maybe more important, it would likely boost the political and public support for a full blown Mars landing and settlement program in our lifetimes. Hopefully a future version of this plan will move in that direction.
Robert Zubrin’s latest op-ed piece, published here in the National Review, invokes the pioneering and resourceful spirit of Homer’s Odysseus in advocating Humans-to-Mars. In addition to tying in the recent NASA announcement about liquid water on Mars and the movie The Martian, Zubrin gives the back of his hand to Ed Regis, philosopher and author of a recent New York Times op-ed piece rife with inaccuracies about the hazards of a mission to Mars.
I finally got to check out The Martian this afternoon. I thought it was fantastic, as did the family members with me, young and old. It has all the great imagery and action sequences that I go to the movies for.
It’s a while since I read Andy Weir’s book, but based on my recollection I felt the movie was true to the story in all the right places, and better in some. Mark Watney is MacGyver on Mars. The detailed technical exposition is largely gone, but that would have bogged down a film that was already 140 minutes long. For the most part the profanity was limited, probably another good change to increase the broad appeal of the film. Drew Goddard’s screenplay also did an adequate job of fleshing out the secondary characters, something on which I felt the book fell short.
As far as accuracy goes, just as in the book the effect of winds on Mars was completely unrealistic. The author admits as much, using it as a necessary plot device. I was a bit disappointed in the surface suits. They are visually appealing, and they look more like a next generation suit than a standard pressure suits, but they were clearly not as tight fitting as a true mechanical counter pressure suit (as we depict in In the Shadow of Ares) would be.
For a couple of extra space-centric reviews you can check out Keith Cowing’s review here (with a NASA-focused perspective) as well as Sarah Lewin’s review on Space.com here.
As for my previously expressed concerns regarding what kind of a message The Martian would have, those were put to rest. By necessity the movie focuses on the hardships of living on Mars, and surviving in space in general, but it’s also a celebration of exploration and challenge. In one scene, while resigned to his own death, Mark Watney asks that his family be told that he died doing something he loved, for a cause that was bigger than himself. Amen.
The Martian is out, and I’m looking forward to seeing it tomorrow with my nephews here in Florida. So far the reviews seem uniformly excellent, with the exception of a few claiming that the “geek factor” was too toned down (I’m OK with that, especially if it expands the appeal).
As a human spaceflight advocate and Mars enthusiast, my bigger concern is the lasting effect of this movie in stirring public support for Humans-to-Mars, hoping that it will be a positive catalyst. I had those hopes over a decade ago with Mission to Mars and Red Planet.
I certainly expect this to be better than both of those, but I’m curious what The Martian movie will have to say about why we should go there and why we should stay. Will the movie leave viewers with a message other than “Bring him home”? After all, in many ways the story is similar to that of Red Planet, which left us with the less than inspiring line, “F*** this planet!”
I’ll find out tomorrow. In the meantime, at least it is inspiring some pro-space commentary.