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Why we don’t need to send a man to Mars—at least, not yet


 
Why we don’t need to send a man to Mars—at least, not yet

NASA

NASA has conquered Yellowknife. On Aug. 6 the U.S. space agency landed its one-tonne Curiosity rover, equipped with a fabulous array of visual, chemical and radiological sensors, in the Gale Crater near the equator of Mars. Martian craters are divided into squares named arbitrarily after minor Earth cities, and when the mobile Mars lab Curiosity found its way to the surface after a landing sequence of confounding complexity, it happened to set down on the square labelled Yellowknife. The name had been picked by geologists who had studied the ancient stones of the Canadian Shield, and know Earth’s Yellowknife well.

The name of Yellowknife Base is a nice random touch of international amity, and Curiosity is also carrying a Canadian Space Agency spectrometer—the first piece of Canadian technology ever to operate on the face of another planet. So we Canadians can sit back and enjoy the show, knowing we are playing a small part in what is perhaps the most sophisticated extraterrestrial venture—manned or unmanned—that the species has undertaken.

The Americans aren’t so lucky. They still have that “man on the moon” thing hanging over them. In American eyes, Curiosity is simultaneously being celebrated and deprecated; it’s a triumph of the U.S.A.’s brightest engineering minds, a remarkable leap forward in robotic space exploration at a time of budget austerity—but it doesn’t have the same emotional tug as boots on the Martian ground would.

This seems to be cause for some disappointment. We may well learn more about Mars from Curiosity than all the Apollo missions combined told us about Earth’s moon, but, in the words of American shuttle astronaut Tom Jones: “Science is one of the great results of exploring the cosmos, but it’s not the only reason we go to space. We send humans as an expression of national will and the superiority of our form of government.”

Even assuming that Canada’s quite different form of government is included in the fun—and the bit about “national will” makes that assumption difficult—this is a funny sort of argument if looked at in a coldly logical light. Country X sending incredibly versatile robots to Mars doesn’t argue for the superiority of its form of government, but sending humans does? That appears to be the working premise. President Obama, whose underappreciated nostalgic-macho streak played a role in the U.S. government’s auto bailouts, said in a congratulatory phone call to Curiosity mission control that NASA was “laying the groundwork for an even more audacious undertaking in the future, and that’s a human mission to the red planet.”

Maybe the scientists on the other end of the phone didn’t notice they were being told by their President that their mission to Mars somehow did not count as “human.” But someone should object on their behalf.

Any space specialist will admit, as Tom Jones does, that the added marginal scientific value of a manned mission to Mars will probably, on the whole, be zero to negative for the foreseeable future. And that is without considering the fact that robots get more robust and intelligent with each generation a lot faster than soft pink oxygen-breathing humans do. “If we can put a man on the moon” reasoning does not apply to the manned exploration of Mars, since the red planet is not conveniently in orbit around us. Practical Earth-Mars round-trip times involving rocketry are estimated at 2.6 years by the Mars Society. That means a manned Mars mission would have to be self-sufficient in ways that the Apollo astronauts weren’t.

The challenges of extracting breathable oxygen from the Martian carbon dioxide atmosphere and shielding the Mars explorers from radiation are only the beginning—and, for that matter, only the foreseeable beginnings of the problem. The logistical difficulties are so profound that a minority of Mars enthusiasts, with Buzz Aldrin as their chief advocate, believe that early missions should be one-way colonization trips, with resupply from Earth but no prospect of an expensive return for the Martian pioneers.

Finding alternative venues for human life is an essential part of the pretext for everything we do in space. But without consensus on the right long-term approach to Mars, we can afford to wait, discuss bold ideas like Aldrin’s, and gather information. In the long meantime—probably not a matter of 20 years, but a hundred—our mindset should not be that we haven’t really reached Mars until we walk on it.

We shouldn’t think of missions like Curiosity as second-best, unsatisfying expressions of utilitarianism, austerity and humility. Curiosity is what Marshall McLuhan would have called an “extension of man”: we are present on Mars, right now. Any future manned mission will be just another chapter in a story we have already begun to write.


 
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Why we don’t need to send a man to Mars—at least, not yet

  1. Mmm…

    I get that the author (or the “editors”) is (or are) against the idea
    of landing people on Mars “at least not yet.”

    But I also think that any author who states that “any space specialist will
    admit, as Tom Jones does, that the added marginal scientific value of a manned
    mission to Mars will probably, on the whole, be zero to negative for the
    foreseeable future” isn’t an expert in this area.

    I don’t even think that astronaut Tom Jones said this. He’s only quoted in the editorial as stating that “science is one of the great results of exploring the cosmos, but it’s
    not the only reason we go to space. We send humans as an expression of
    national will and the superiority of our form of government.”

    This doesn’t say anything about Jones and his opinion regarding a manned mission to Mars or anywhere else. My understanding is that Jones is an engaging public speaker and his website at http://home.comcast.net/~skywalking/speaking.htm seems to focus on topics related to how the manned space program is generally a good thing.

    In fact, we could find hundreds of “space specialists” at the recently
    concluded Mars Society national conference on August 3rd who’d like to see
    people on Mars ASAP. Some of these “space specialists” included Dr.
    Robert Zubrin, Dr, Jim Bell, ex NASA Astronaut Pete Wooden, Dr. John
    Johnson from the NASA Exo-Planet Science Institute, Dr. Stan Gunn & Milt
    Klein and many many more.

    I bet that there are hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of others who
    didn’t make it to this specific conference but are active in the area, attend
    other conferences and think that sending humans to Mars ASAP is a good idea.

    Some of these people would likely argue that a single human on Mars could
    do far more in a day than a simple rover could do in a month.

    The author (who seems to be only identified as “the editors”) has
    certainly demonstrated a lack of expertise in this area with his statements.

    No
    wonder he/she wouldn’t attach a name to the editorial.

  2. ‘we can afford to wait, discuss bold ideas like Aldrin’s, and gather information.’

    No we can’t.

    ‘Waiting’, ‘discussing’ and ‘gathering’ are in no way equivalent to actually being on Mars.

    Time to stop playing parlour games and get on with it.

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