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.
We’ve landed numerous craft on Mars, and this wouldn’t have capabilities that have made robotic explorers so useful. However, it would be the first designed to bring humans to Mars, quite a milestone. While the company has indicated that it doesn’t intend to provide details on the program until September, there is some very interesting potential .
Besides demonstrating the descent and landing technology, the mission could add greatly to our knowledge of radiation exposure and the long term performance of life support systems without a team of highly skilled (and motivated!) mechanics in the loop. I wonder if the mission could include a simulated crew, consuming oxygen, expelling CO2 and other waste. Of course the Dragon craft wouldn’t be the only habitable volume for the six month trip in a manned mission, but any opportunity to test systems under challenging, real-world conditions would be welcome.
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.
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.
Despite some flat/cheesy dialogue I felt the screenplay did a nice job of extending a 700-word book to feature film length. The movie was reasonably consistent with the book, while the new characters and subplots added depth to the original narrative. Even the obligatory kid elements (gadgets, colors, slides, etc.) were generally plot-relevant and less annoying than other adaptations I have had to sit through.
Visually, Mars Needs Moms was impressive, though the human characters still suffer from the “dead-eye” that afflicts so much computer animation. Among the humans, the character Gribble was well animated, but Milo and his Mom left something to be desired. The Martians were interesting enough, though I have to say I found their lower bodies a bit disturbing to look at.
As for technical accuracy, the movie fared quite well. Keeping in mind that it was based on a short, illustrated story, I was OK with the filmmakers keeping the imagery in the climactic scene where the characters are wearing helmets and ordinary clothing on the Martian surface. I felt there was an effort to compensate for that by making the rest of the film more scientifically accurate, including using a wormhole to shorten the months-long Earth-Mars transit, and showing the lower Martian gravity (though as portrayed it looked closer to lunar gravity to me).
The most important critics, my 5, 8 and 10-year-old daughters, loved Mars Needs Moms, as did my wife. I’d recommend it to anyone with children. As for me, I enjoyed it though I’m still looking forward to a Mars movie that is simultaneously entertaining and realistic.
Interestingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), we came to some of the same conclusions as these researchers. Of particular note, the morale benefit to settlers in an inescapably indoor environment of having an open green space (or Greenspace, if you’ve read the book).
Crops of lettuce, kale, cucumber, peppers, herbs, tomatoes, cantaloupes and edible flowers comprise many of the plants grown in the climate-controlled chamber. Because the importation of soil is restricted by the Antarctic Treaty , dirt is not used to grow the plants. In fact, the closest local dirt is nearly two miles beneath the ice on which the station sits. The plants are grown in a hydroponic nutrient solution instead — no dirt needed.
For that matter, no sunlight is needed either. The growth chamber, which was built in the winter of 2004, makes its own light via 13 water-cooled, high-pressure sodium lamps. In this bright environment, it is not uncommon to find people, like the plants, dwelling happily under the intense light produced in the chamber during the dark polar winter.
Carl and I put a lot of thought into extraterrestrial agriculture while writing In the Shadow of Ares, not least because the primary setting for the book is a very large agricultural settlement. Interestingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), we came to some of the same conclusions as these researchers. Of particular note, the morale benefit to settlers in an inescapably indoor environment of having an open green space (or Greenspace, if you’ve read the book).
Dr. Richard B. Hoover of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center claims to have found proof of alien life. In a study published Friday in the Journal of Cosmology, Hoover says that fossils found in a very rare CI1 carbonaceous chondrite meteorite are conclusive evidence of alien bacterial life.
This is hardly the first such claim, and echoes studies involving the Allan Hills 84001 Martian meteorite that have prompted debate that has been ongoing since 1996. This time NASA came out quickly and indicated that there was no support from other researchers for Hoover’s claims.
Hoover’s study was previously made available for peer review, and those comments are supposed to be published soon, so I’ll withhold judgement for now. Of course, if you’re interested in how the discovery of living alien microbial life might play out, check out In the Shadow of Ares.