The Symphonic Case for Mars

By Phil Plait | June 9, 2010 7:00 am

The Symphony of Science strikes again! This time, it’s The Case for Mars:

These songs are very catchy and ethereal. And what fun to see my friends Brian Cox and Penelope Boston in this one! Penny is made of win. She rocks.

Having said that, I have some comments. In general I agree with the general thrust of these videos, making science cool and interesting and even — dare I say it? — fun. But this is the first one where I’m not sure I agree with the premise.

I don’t think Mars is the next logical step in manned space exploration. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it! What I’m saying is that I don’t think we’re quite ready to make that huge a leap yet without taking a few smaller steps first. It’s hard enough getting to the Moon; Mars offers problems that are far more difficult. The length of the trip is one major issue. We simply don’t have the technology right now to keep astronauts alive that long. Well, to be more clear, we have the tech, but it’s still in its infancy. We need to test it a lot more thoroughly first.

Radiation is another issue. It’s a six month trip, and the crew needs protection. There are some clever ideas about this (I like encasing the ship in water ice; it acts as a shield you can drink!) but we’re still a ways away from working it out.

I suspect the best way to do this is in multiple stages, with considerable overlap in time between the stages:

1) Develop a big booster that can lift enough tonnage to orbit. Constellation was the program working on this, but it may be canceled. The Europeans and Russians have heavy lift capability, and we should definitely partner with other countries. But a lesson learned from building the space station is that we’ll need backups and such to make sure this works. An American heavy lift rocket is crucial.

2) Go back to the Moon. What we’ll learn from that will be vital for going to Mars.

3) Visit some near-Earth asteroids. Again, this will help with tech and experience in going to Mars, and has the added benefit of being awesome science, and learning about potentially life-threatening objects. I’m all about literally saving the planet. This should be done in tandem with going to the Moon.

4) Once we learn how to stay in space for months at a time, and have reliable methods and engineering for it, we can start building manned Mars probes. A lot of the work will come out naturally as we go to the Moon and asteroids, so that can be incorporated into the Mars shots.

This won’t happen overnight. It’ll take a while, but that’s the way things are. Robert Zubrin, founder of The Mars Society and featured in the Symphony of Science video, says we can do this much more quickly. He’s right, but he’s wrong. He’s right that we can do it, in that it’s technically possible. But it’s not politically possible. It just isn’t. I’ve read Zubrin’s books, and he’s a smart guy. When he writes about engineering it’s solid stuff, but I find his politics to be naive. There is simply no way the government will spend billions to change the entire space program and develop his plan. At the very least, it assumes that the President, Congress, and NASA will all align themselves in the same direction — and we’ve seen how that has gone recently — that this direction is the one Zubrin wants, and, most critically, it stays pointed in that direction for the several decades it will take to make this work.

That’s why I think trying to go to Mars next is the wrong way to go about this. I’m willing to entertain arguments against me, of course. I certainly want to see humans exploring Mars, but not necessarily as the very next thing we do in space. But what I want most fundamentally here is a permanent and expanding human influence in space. Given the technological barriers, the political barriers, and the financial barriers (which are not independent and are in fact highly non-linear) I suspect the best way to do this is to keep in mind the long range goals, plan for them, but start with an achievable set of goals, one that maximizes their probability of getting done before the political winds blow in a different direction once again.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Science, Space

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