Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Mars Awaits!


Just saying the name of the red planet evokes in a science fiction fan a sense of wonder and adventure.  From Edgar Rice Burroughs’ visions of Barsoom in A Princess of Mars to Andy Weir’s The Martian, generations of space enthusiasts have been inspired to dream of exploring Mars. 

Space scientists have also given the notion a great deal of thought.  I have a copy of a NASA Technical Memorandum (TM X-53049) titled, “Proceedings of the Symposium on Manned Planetary Missions 1963/1964 Status,” which describes the status of America’s plans and capabilities to explore Mars as described in a meeting held in January of that year.  (5 years before we landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon; 3 months before the first Gemini flight.)

The report is fascinating.  Fascinating because these audacious engineers were planning to send people to Mars before we’d even flown two humans in space simultaneously and fascinating because they clearly understood the technical challenges facing anyone choosing to mount such a mission – and many of these same challenges remain with us today.  (We’ve made progress toward solving most of the technical challenges.)  Dare I say almost all of them can be resolved sufficiently to risk sending a crew on a 2-3 year round trip mission to Mars with reasonable chance of mission success and bringing them home alive.  So why, then, haven’t we undertaken the voyage?

The simple answer, which would be wrong, is money.  The United States, for example, has a gross domestic product of ~$16.7 Trillion Dollars.  That’s $16,700 billion dollars.  The US Government budget in 2015 is $3.9 Trillion Dollars ($3,900 Billion Dollars).  A Mars mission, in round numbers, should cost no more than $10B - $25B dollars (total, not per year).  Surely a country where a soft drink manufacturer (Coca Cola) has a gross revenue of $45.9B (in 2014), or roughly twice the total projected cost of a Mars mission, can afford to pay for the trip.

No, in my opinion the answer is much simpler: Lack of will.  Sending people to Mars isn’t happening because there aren’t enough people making enough noise to make it happen.  And that’s a pity.  Mars is within our reach and has been for decades.  To quote Werner Von Braun from his Introduction to the 1964 Mars study, “Although our nation is firmly dedicated to achieving a manned lunar landing in this decade, a landing on the Moon is not an ultimate goal.  Man will travel beyond the Moon to explore the solar systems.  When, I do not know.  But perhaps, after this symposium, we shall have a better idea of when man could conceivably venture out to Mars or Venus and return safely to Earth.

We’re discovering other solar systems and we haven’t yet ventured (with people) into our own beyond the Moon.  When, indeed, shall we venture to Mars?  I say we’ll go as soon as we decide we want to do so.  (Hurry up!)

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