Obama Abandons Mars

The Administration’s proposed budget cuts include abandoning upcoming Mars robotic missions in 2016 and 2018.  While it appears that NASA might be able to salvage a 2018 mission by extreme cost cutting and siphoning money from other programs, the damage could be irreparable.  The US Mars exploration program is a pipeline of projects scheduled at approximate 2-year intervals.  Cutting that pipeline could set back Mars exploration by decades, and is a betrayal of commitments to our international exploration partners.

Some cost cuts are certainly justified in the current climate, and the shift to private launch systems could pay off in the long run.  However, there is no reason to expect private interests to take up purely scientific endeavors like Mars exploration, at least anytime soon.  Planetary exploration is and should be a core function of NASA, and a setback of even a couple of years cannot be justified.

To Mars and Back…Sorta

The crew of the Mars500 simulation emerged today in Moscow from 520 days of isolation that began June 3, 2010.

Shortly after ‘landing’

The primary purpose of this simulation was to evaluate a variety of physical and mental impacts of a long-duration space exploration mission, such as the 500+ day journey that a crew would have to withstand for a round-trip mission to Mars.  Study elements included issues related to an actual mission, such as communication delays and a simulated schedule:

During the isolation period, the candidates have been simulating all elements of the Mars mission, traveling to Mars, orbiting the planet, landing and return to Earth.

Of course, not all elements; some things are difficult or impossible to simulate, such as weightlessness or cosmic radiation.  But it is interesting to note ESA chose to exclude one obvious factor that we included in the early exploration missions of In the Shadow of Ares.  Apparently ESA doesn’t believe that women should be included in a mission to Mars.

Still a Jerk

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.

Traveling Light

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?

Amber’s Mission

Last week marked the anniversaries of the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents.  Those old enough to remember one or more of those tragedies recall the feelings of shock and sadness.  Eventually we moved on, however, recommitting ourselves to the noble endeavor of manned space exploration.

But what if a spacecraft vanished without a trace?  And what if, decades later, you had the chance to solve a mystery that most had given up on, even if they hadn’t forgotten?  That’s the challenge facing 14-year-old Amber Jacobsen:

There was an ocean of data from the Ares missions and the subsequent exploration and settlement of the planet…surely there was some clue, something that had been missed.  She looked up at the portraits again.  What if it was right in front of everyone, and they couldn’t see it, because they were still thinking like Earthers? 

But shewasn’t an Earther.  She looked around the cabin at the memorials to the Ares III crew.  Mars was her world, the only one she’d ever known.  If something had been missed, maybe she could see it.  Why shouldn’t she be the one to find the truth? “I’ll do it.”

“What’s that?”  Aaron had drifted over to the other side of the cabin.

“Find out what happened.  You know, figure it out.  I’m gonna do it.”

This Ares is Not Part of Constellation

A common question about In the Shadow of Ares concerns whether the “Ares” of the title is connected to the NASA Constellation program. It isn’t. In fact, our use of the name precedes it’s adoption by NASA for it’s now-mostly-cancelled rocket family by at least two years.

In the backstory, the Ares Project is a series of joint US-Russian exploration missions to Mars, based on the “Mars Direct” plan developed by Robert Zubrin. Beginning in early 2025, a series of six missions were planned, of which five were ultimately carried out:

  • Ares I: first manned landing on Mars, described in the scene aboard the Penelope;
  • Ares II: explored the area where Port Lowell is located at the time of the story;
  • Ares III: the hab Odysseus disappears immediately after landing, leading to a short program hiatus;
  • Ares IV: resumed the Ares program with an ambitious 6-astronaut effort to demonstrate settlement construction techniques (one result of which is the Jacobsen homestead);
  • Ares V: the final exploration mission before commercial settlement began, during which Amber Jacobsen is accidentally conceived and born.

In our case, Ares is (like Apollo) the name of the program rather than a particular piece of hardware.