Alan Bean, Apollo 12 Lunar Module Pilot and 4th man to walk on the Moon, died today.
The Mars Society recently announced the winner of the Gemini-Mars competition, the culmination of a program that was originally announced last year. Awhile back I described the benefits of such a program here and here. Gemini-Mars is a proposed Mars flyby mission, so named because it would include a two-person crew and also because it would pave our way to reaching the Martian surface, much like the Gemini Program did for the Moon in the 1960s.
The top team, from Cranfield University in the UK, was one of 10 teams invited to present their plan at the 2016 Mars Society Convention held last month in Washington DC. Details of the plan were not included in the announcement, but will presumably be contained in the conference proceedings. I was unfortunately not able to attend this year, and thus haven’t yet seen the presentation.
The original contest announcement included the statement that the plan “could be placed on the desk of the President-elect in late 2016 and be completed by the end of his or her second term”. Well in a matter of weeks we’ll know who that will be, and hopefully that individual will have an interest in taking this next bold step.
On Thursday NASA released a plan for getting humans to Mars, the 36 page Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.
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.
As anticipated in my prior post, the Mars Society is moving forward with plans to advocate a Mars flyby mission:
As part of the effort to provide the currently adrift U.S. space program with real direction that could get the humans to Mars program underway, the Mars Society will launch an international student engineering contest to design the Gemini Mars mission, creating a plan for a two-person Mars flyby that could be placed on the desk of the President-elect in late 2016 and be completed by the end of his or her second term.
The Gemini Mars mission has some similarities to the previously proposed Inspiration Mars mission, but eliminates its principle weakness by avoiding the use of a rarely-employed high energy trajectory that imposed excessive technology development, launch capacity and schedule demands on the mission. Instead, much easier and more frequently-used low energy trajectories will be employed.
Commenting on the planned contest, Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin said, “We are calling this mission Gemini Mars, not just because it will have a crew of two, but because we aim to have it serve to open the way to the Red Planet in the same way that the 1960s Gemini program paved the way to the Moon.” Further details on the contest rules will be released in the near future.
This represents a significant shift in Mars advocacy efforts, and one that I hope will–finally–bear fruit. But will the eventual President-elect support such a mission? It’s way too early to tell.
I’m posting this review of Interstellar, belatedly, because I felt I had to see it again before commenting on its greatness as well as its few shortcomings. There was just too much to absorb and appreciate in one viewing. I’ll be careful with my wording to avoid spoilers.
Knowing the basic premise— explorers are searching for a habitable home for humanity to save them from a dying Earth, helped by unknown, advanced “bulk beings” who have opened a wormhole near Saturn for our use—I had initial trepidation that I was in for a Climate Change lecture. That notion was dispelled on the first viewing. Sure there’s a dust-bowl type blight that is wiping out crops and threatening what’s left of mankind; but this is just the impetus—the McGuffin if you will—to provide the urgency that drives the action. Some elements leading up to the climax were a bit too contrived for my taste, but overall it’s a great story with a strong cast, tension, and visuals that won’t let anyone down. The script is excellent, with the exception of one criticism I’ll go into below.
Unlike so many recent Sci-Fi films, this one consistently makes a case for space exploration and advancement. A particularly powerful and effective scene involves a parent-teacher conference where Cooper has to process the absurdity his daughter’s suspension. Murphy’s transgression? She got into a fight after bringing a non-sanitized textbook to school; one that hadn’t been “corrected” to show that the Apollo landings were an elaborate hoax.
Cooper: You don’t believe we went to the Moon?
Teacher: I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…
Cooper: Useless machines?
Teacher: And if we don’t want a repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.
Cooper: You know, one of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI, and if we had one of those left the doctors would have been able to find the cyst in my wife’s brain, before she died instead of afterwards, and then she would’ve been the one sitting here, listening to this instead of me, which would’ve been a good thing because she was always the…calmer one.
Wow, not the kind of thoughtful dialog you expect in a film like this, but most welcome and expertly delivered. It’s something we were keen to include in In The Shadow of Ares, and what is so often missing from the anti-human, Luddite drivel we’ve come to expect. The humor is also excellent, particularly the interaction between the humans and robotic character TARS.
Where I was a little let down by the dialog was during the climax where Cooper solves the mystery of the bulk beings. Cooper works out the details in a conversation TARS that is perfectly set up to avoid exposition, yet ends up feeling like just that. Complicated conclusions end up being stated more than worked out. This important scene, and the accompanying dialog, could have been extended slightly and improved greatly. I have my fingers crossed that this is addressed in the Director’s Cut.
While Interstellar is brilliant on so many levels, it’s the human element that really surprised me. Ultimately it’s a story about our relationships and obligations to those we love, particularly our children. Two scenes in particular, between Cooper and Murphy, are perhaps the most powerful I have ever seen.
I couldn’t agree more. Safety cannot–and should not–be the top priority if we are going to have a program that is affordable and actually accomplishes anything.
Does that in any way trivialize the lives and well being of astronauts? Absolutely not. It’s a recognition that space exploration is inherently dangerous: risk will always be there, and safety goes too far when it blunts our ability to actually do anything meaningful.
Respect for the bravery, sacrifice and achievement of explorers is a central them of In the Shadow of Ares. We honor them by pressing on with the mission.
Fox News recently ran a piece on plans by Mars One to launch one-way missions to Mars, with the first arrival in 2023: Mars One Plans Suicide Mission to Red Planet for 2023.
The idea is that the astronauts are emigres, and not just visitors. This removes the need for return spacecraft and the associated fuel, tremendously reducing the cost and complexity of the missions. It also eases the concern that the early Mars missions, like Apollo, might eventually lose support and result in another dead end.
Hyperbolic headlines aside, I agree with Brian Enke that “extended stay mission” is a more appropriate name. The early settlers in North America arguably faced tougher physical and psychological hurdles, yet I doubt many would refer to their journey as a suicide mission.
A major theme of In the Shadow of Ares is the role of private enterprise in Martian development and settlement, though we initially expected government-led missions to open the frontier before “getting out of the way”. Mars One proposes to conduct their missions completely independently, though it remains to be seen if they can obtain the required funding, estimated at $6 billion for the first mission. I, for one, would love to see them pull it off.
I look forward to learning more, though an initial perusal led me to a few concerns, not least of which is Mars One’s stated intent to rely entirely on solar power on the Martian surface. I believe their concerns regarding nuclear power are severely overstated, and smack of politics trumping science. Readers of In the Shadow of Ares may recall politically-motivated power choices having deadly consequences for a group of settlers at Tharsis Station.
Over the last couple of weeks a video of a marriage proposal at the Chicago Comic Con got a lot of hits. That’s because the couple was blessed by none other than Patrick Stewart, the actor who made quite a career out of playing USS Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard. A cute (if nerdy) moment, and good for them:
However, for me the video brought to mind something less pleasant. Back in 2004 the same actor took the time to poo-poo human space exploration in a BBC Interview:
I would like to see us get this place right first before we have the arrogance to put significantly flawed civilisations out on to other planets.
Stewart repeats one of the oldest and most flawed arguments against human spaceflight. Exploration, and especially exploration that challenges us as a trip to the Moon did (or as a trip to Mars would), provides tremendous benefits here at home. At the same time, it is ridiculous to expect a time when there won’t be problems on Earth. Who will be the judge as to when we are good enough that we can go out and play?
Seven years later I’m still irritated when I see him. Maybe I need to get over it, but in this case it’s not just what was said, but who said it.
NASA has posted the following image of the return of the Space Shuttle Atlantis to Earth earlier this week:
Taken from the International Space Station, it’s a unique view of the craft’s fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Soon thereafter, Texas Governor (and likely presidential candidate) Rick Perry issued a strong statement that included the following:
Unfortunately, with the final landing of the Shuttle Atlantis and no indication of plans for future missions, this administration has set a significantly different milestone by shutting down our nation’s legacy of leadership in human spaceflight and exploration, leaving American astronauts with no alternative but to hitchhike into space.
Though it’s not just the Obama Administration. There has been a lack of leadership in space policy since the end of the Apollo era. The next few years will reveal the success (or failure) of efforts to shift the emphasis to the private sector. While I do see the merits of such a move, I don’t foresee the economic incentives necessary for the private sector to reach Mars in my lifetime. That’s profoundly disappointing.
On the other hand, I don’t trust NASA to manage such an effort within the austere limits the US Government will have to abide by for the foreseeable future. So is there an alternative? How about financial incentives for (American) private companies to meet milestones that get us progressively closer to the red planet? Think a scaled-up version of the Ansari X Prize. It’s not a new idea, but maybe one whose time has come. Lots of private money going to work, with much lower risk and cost to the taxpayer. What’s not to like?
They’re not quite skinsuits, but someone is thinking ahead to what sort of suits future Mars settlers will need.
Wikipedia has a useful backgrounder on the skinsuit (aka “mechanical counterpressure suit” or “space activity suit”), which includes the basis for several details of how the concept is applied in In the Shadow of Ares. But if you’re more into a retro-look, Jeff Foust reviews of a new book on the development history of the Apollo lunar spacesuits.