The trouble with science popularizers in general is that by nature, the job entails talking about a wider range of technical topics than any individual can fully comprehend at the level necessary to discuss them competently. While an expert in one field can speak intelligently about closely-related fields, the further away from one’s own expertise one travels, the more difficult that task becomes. And it’s even worse if a man in that role is a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, so assured of his superior intellect that he is incapable of recognizing that he is in fact a fool.
Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson inspired a character in another “Dispatches from Mars” story Carl and I are trying to finish up – a character who as a science popularizer and a man is the opposite of these two.
The big difference between the fictional Silas Hudson and these two is that he learned very early on, when he fell into a career as a public personality on the back of a book and related video series, that it’s easy for any expert to fall prey to the temptation to speak authoritatively about fields of which he has lesser, little, or even no knowledge. After publicly embarrassing himself, he redeemed his image by hiring a research staff to vet his scripts and books with true subject matter experts, and by conscientiously acknowledging the limits of what he personally understood. In other words, he started off as a young man with an enormous ego, humiliated himself as a result of that ego, and learned a bit of humility and ethics from the experience – humility that improved his ‘product’ greatly.
I’m actually disappointed that we have to kill him off. But when you’re writing a murder mystery, someone has to be the victim.
Starting Monday November 14, The National Geographic Channel is airing a 6-part miniseries about the first human mission to Mars in 2033. You can set your DVR and wait, or watch the first episode on-line now, in addition to related digital shorts.
Based on my initial screening it appears to be a mix of documentary–including interviews with the likes of Elon Musk, Robert Zubrin and Andy Weir–and dramatization.
Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.
It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.
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.
I recently attended a presentation about the BoldlyGo Institute, hosted by the Rice University Space Institute. BoldlyGo is a “non-governmental, non-profit organization founded to address highly compelling scientific questions through new approaches to developing space science missions while engaging the global community in the quest.” As presenters Dr. Laurie Leshin (Worcester Polytechnic President) and Dr. Jon Morse (BoldlyGo CEO) put it, they are trying to fill the science and exploration gap resulting from stagnant NASA funding.
Their first proposed mission, surprisingly, is a Mars sample return mission. Sound too ambitious? Maybe not. I’ve posted about the welcome reset of expectations for Humans-to-Mars, with a shift to focusing on a Mars flyby as the initial near-term goal. Similarly, BoldlyGo’s SCIM mission (“Sample Collection to Investigate Mars”) is a fresh alternative to the standard sample return missions that have never gotten off the drawing board.
With a baseline launch opportunity in August 2020, SCIM performs a daring high-speed atmospheric pass down to below 40 km altitude timed to coincide with seasonal Martian dust storms, collecting thousands of Martian dust particles from the atmosphere. After the sample collection pass at Mars, the spacecraft returns directly to Earth, where its precious, sterilized samples descend by parachute to the ground.
While the sample size will be small, it is anticipated that the particles collected will be representative of the ubiquitous Martian dust, and that back on Earth the dust can be subject to intense examination not foreseeable on a near-term robotic mission. For the relatively low price of perhaps $300 million, that’s a lot of scientific bank for the buck.
This looks good – one of my gripes about writing fiction set on Mars is that despite the huge volume of photographic and topographic data accumulated over the past fifteen-plus years, it’s nearly impossible for a non-planetary-scientist to visualize the terrain using the information products planetary scientists have generated from that data. This effort appears to remedy that problem by presenting the aforementioned data in a familiar format: Ordnance Survey Blog OS maps go off the planet
The planet Mars has become the latest subject in our long line of iconic OS paper maps. The one-off Ordnance Survey Mars map, created using NASA open data and made to a 1:4,000,000 scale, is made to see if our style of mapping has potential for future Mars missions. Our Cartographic Designer, Chris Wesson, designed the map…
While the Ordnance Survey isn’t printing these maps as of yet, they are taking requests at the link above to gauge interest in doing so. Meanwhile, you can view the (enormous) electronic version on the Ordnance Survey Flickr page.
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.
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.
Impressive. Now, imagine a few dozen of these happening. At the same time. I just drafted that scene last weekend…
I find it a bit surprising that this sort of thing (to various magnitudes) happens about 200 times per year. Not that it should be all that surprising, considering it probably happens on Earth as well – the rocks just don’t reach the surface thanks to our atmosphere. Surprising because one tends to think of Mars as a completely dead planet, where nothing much happens.
As we continue to explore and eventually settle the place, we’re bound to find out it’s nowhere near as dead as it seems. Something important to keep in mind with regards to writing fiction set on Mars – your characters are likely going to have to outrun a water outburst or dodge a meteoroid every now and then, and who knows what else.