We have a plan…or do we?

On Thursday NASA released a plan for getting humans to Mars, the 36 page Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.

journeytomars-coverThe 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.

 

A Martian Odyssey: We Can Do It

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.

Review – The Martian

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.

Will The Martian Have a Message?

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).

The Martian PosterAs 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.

Icehouses on Mars?

Mars icehouseThe winning design in the first stage of NASA’s 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge competition was a structure made out of water ice.  Apparently the translucence was part of the appeal, although the on-line summary doesn’t detail structural considerations for pressurized applications.

At least future Martians will know where to go to grab a cold one.

NASA to Announce Mars Mystery Solved

NASA has posted a teaser for the announcement of a major science finding Monday at 11:30 Eastern.  Speculation is running amok, mostly tongue-in-cheek.

marsA clue to the announcement may be found in the list of conference panelists, which includes Alfred McEwen.  McEwen is principal investigator for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).  Note also that, besides imaging in the visible wavelengths, HiRISE makes observations at near-infrared wavelengths to obtain information on the mineral groups present.

So might this have something top do with water, or perhaps some minerals of particular value or interest?  We’ll see.

UPDATE:  So it’s water.  Not just ancient water, but fresh evidence of periodic ongoing surface flows.  Let’s go check it out.

Gemini Mars

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.

A Reason for Optimism?

MS Convention 2015 Poster by Ed Sludden

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?

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar - GargantuaI’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.

Dumbest Idea Ever?

inspiration-mars-spacecraftNow we’re getting details on the 2018 Mars Mission hinted at last week, and we have confirmation that the Inspiration Mars Foundation is planning a free-return, fly-by visit to Mars. 

That’s right:  n0 landing.  No boots on the ground.  No exploration.  288 days in interplanetary space, only to come within 100 miles of the surface and then spend another 273 days on the return trip.  I’m sure there are plenty of others with the same initial reaction I had:  what a waste.

But that’s wrong.  It didn’t take much thought, even before reading over the mission profile, to realize this is a brilliant idea.  First of all, the simplicity of this mission means it will be inexpensive:  in the $1 billion range.  That takes it out of the government-only realm, meaning it can be privately funded.  Factor in the possibility of advertising and broadcast rights, and paying for it becomes the easy part.

And what’s the payoff?  More than you might expect.  In one near-term mission we address, head-on, some of the biggest challenges (real and imagined), of sending humans to Mars:  radiation exposure, microgravity, psychological effects, long-term life support, etc. 

Better yet, this adventure can be a much-needed reawakening, reminding us that we are explorers.  Hopefully 2018 will just be the appetizer, with a full course soon to follow.