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.

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?

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.

A Private Race to Mars?

Last Summer the folks at Mars One announced plans to land humans on Mars by 2023.

Now it appears Dennis Tito will announce an American effort to get humans to Mars by 2018.  Some might remember him as the first space tourist when he visited the ISS in 2001.

Apparently we’ll get details next week.  Notice that I wrote “humans to Mars by 2018″ and not “humans on Mars”.  Early word is that it’s a flyby mission.

NASA’s Mission is not Safety

ISS; NASA via flickrUSA Today has published a great opinion piece by Rand Simberg, who boldly states that “NASA’s mission is not safety“.  [Phil Plait agrees.]

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.

 

Jetpacks!

I had the pleasure this evening of meeting Mark Lee, retired USAF Colonel and former NASA Astronaut.  Colonel Lee, a veteran of four Space Shuttle missions, presented an overview of the US space program and his astronaut career for my local chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Colonel Lee’s space resume includes such feats as the launch of the Magellan Venus probe, repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, and he and his wife N. Jan Davis became the first married couple in space.  Of particular interest to me, though, was his untethered EVAs and jetpack flights.  Exciting stuff, whether on Mars or 250 miles over our heads.

Those Suicidal Pilgrims

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.

A New Era?

Friday’s ISS docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule received a good bit of media attention, but likely not anything near what it deserved.  Much of the public was at least peripherally aware that a private spacecraft (albeit heavily subsidized by NASA) had successfully launched and docked with the orbiting outpost, but aside from the delivery of needed supplies, most could probably not articulate the true significance of the mission. 

Besides reducing our reliance on Russia for access to space, this mission hopefully represents the genesis of a vibrant space-based economy dominated by private enterprise. 

And in my lifetime no less.

 If that vision comes to pass, May 25, 2012 could become nearly as significant as  July 20, 1969.  Or not.  Will the fledgling industry be crippled by excessive regulation?  Will shortsighted policy decisions gut the exploration programs that are arguably a proper role for public-sector programs?

Combined with last month’s announcement by Planetary Resources, I’m hopeful.  This despite the recent, foolish decision by the Obama Administration to abandon future robotic Mars missions.