We have a plan…or do we?

On Thursday NASA released a plan for getting humans to Mars, the 36 page Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.

journeytomars-coverThe 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.

 

A Martian Odyssey: We Can Do It

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.

Icehouses on Mars?

Mars icehouseThe 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.

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.

Review: The Martian

I recently finished The Martian by Andy Weir.   I knew little about it, hadn’t read any reviews, and wasn’t expecting much.  In fact, I was ready to be disappointed. 

When we decided to write In the Shadow of Ares, we intentionally set it on a developed Mars.  For my part, I thought the story of a few astronauts and a dead planet had been done to death, with predictably mediocre results. 

I’ve never been so wrong.  This book is fantastic. 

Mark Watney is stranded on Mars when the rest of the Ares III crew have to evacuate for Earth shortly into their mission.  He is thought to be dead, and with no functioning communications and almost no food, his prospects are bleak. What he does have, though, is a mountain of ingenuity and a great sense of humor that give him a fighting chance.

The Martian is highly technical, but so funny and suspenseful that it should be accessible to nearly anyone (the language is genuine—and salty—so it’s not for all). Despite the bulk of the story consisting of the narration of the protagonist, the voice of that character is more than strong enough to carry the story along, and it doesn’t hurt that the pacing and suspense are outstanding.  I did have a few technical and editorial criticisms, but they are too insignificant to describe in detail here.

This is one of the most creative and enjoyable books I have ever read, and I recommend it highly.

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.

 

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.

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.