Robert Zubrin was quick to post some suggested improvements to Elon Musk’s recently announced Mars plans (quicker than I was to post this follow-up):
The key thing I would change is his plan to send the whole trans Mars propulsion system all the way to Mars and back. Doing that means it can only be used once every four years. Instead he should stage off of it just short of Earth escape. Then it would loop around back to aerobrake into Earth orbit in a week, while the payload habitat craft with just a very small propulsion system for landing would fly on to Mars.
Used this way, the big Earth escape propulsion system could be used 5 times every launch window, instead of once every other launch window, effectively increasing its delivery capacity by a factor of 10. Alternatively, it could deliver the same payload with a system one tenth the size, which is what I would do.
So instead of needing a 500 ton launch capability, he could send the same number of people to Mars every opportunity with a 50 ton launcher, which is what Falcon heavy will be able to do.
The small landing propulsion unit could either be refilled and flown back to LEO, used on Mars for long distance travel, or scrapped and turned into useful parts on Mars using a 3D printer.
Done in this manner, such a transportation system could be implemented much sooner, possibly before the next decade is out, making settlement of Mars a real possibility for our time.
Phobos’ grooves, long thought to be related to the enormous impact that created Stickney Crater, may actually be due to deformation from tidal forces. These “stretch marks” may indicate that Phobos is not solid, but rather is an aggregate of rubble surrounded by a thick layer of powdery regolith. This would make it easier for tidal forces to fracture the Moon.
These findings, if accurate, could present interesting challenges and opportunities for astronauts visiting the moon for exploration, mining, or setting up a base. Phobos will figure prominently in Ghosts of Tharsis, our upcoming sequel to In the Shadow of Ares.
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.
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.
The 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.
4Frontiers Corporation recently launched an initial private placement offering to finance the first phase of INTERSPACE Florida, a space and science themed destination to be located in Florida, eight miles from the Kennedy Space Center.
INTERSPACE will immerse its guests in a dynamic, visceral, hands-on adventure, training with high-tech tools of the space frontier and glimpsing into the future by visiting the largest indoor Mars simulation in the world. Guests themselves will become Explorers and Settlers, bringing visions of our future into current reality.
Space tourists will be able to choose a day pass for a “trip” to Mars, including views of the Mars simulation. Those willing to be “settlers” could spend multiple days playing key roles in the settlement. Given the tremendous interest in the Mars One and Inspiration Mars missions, including over 200,000 applicants for a one-way trip to Mars, it’s not hard to conceive of tremendous interest in “trying out” Mars for a few days.
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.
3-D printing may be more advanced than I had thought:
I am a little bit skeptical. For example, how does the optical scanner determine the dimensions and configuration of individual internal parts, for which there is no line of sight? That is not explained in the video, though perhaps it’s a simplification for the casual viewer.
Nonetheless, what a great technology for off-world travel. No need for spare parts. Of course, you need a feed stock for the process that will meet the specifications for the end product, and it helps if that feedstock can be manufactured at your destination. We already know that we can make breathing air and rocket propellant from elements readily available on Mars, so why not other compounds?