The Humans to Mars Summit earlier this week (May 6-8) brought up some good talking points about manned missions to Mars. With so many plans in the works, it’s no longer a bunch of nerds preaching to the choir about why we need to go. Real hardware is being developed, people are talking about the best route to get there, and it’s not all about rival governments engaging in a Space Race for national prestige anymore. If you’re curious about exactly who was there and what they said, here’s a link to their webcast with their recorded videos. Some lessons I took away from it include:
- Not even the supporters of manned Mars missions agree on the best way to get there. To be fair, manned Mars missions aren’t exactly routine yet. The options include:
- Asteroid Next: This is the option supported by NASA and its plan to put an asteroid in the vicinity of the Moon for astronauts to explore. This has the benefit of testing hardware in a location that isn’t so very far from Earth but still got blistered by the MC: “Why stand on a rock when you can walk on a world?” Those in the Summit’s audience were less than inspired by that particular panel and questioned why they were so focused on the asteroid.
- Phobos Next: This option was covered by some students at the International Space University. They proposed a plan to land people in a crater on the Martian moon Phobos. Those students had obviously done their homework, but my first reaction was, “If you’re going to go all that way, why not just land on Mars? Or at least split your teams and efforts between Mars and Phobos?”
- Moon Next: Basically, return to the Moon as part of preparations to go to Mars. It would save the trouble of putting an asteroid in orbit. It also has benefits such as 1/6 G (half Mars’ gravity but still more than an asteroid) and more wiggle room if something doesn’t look right about the planned landing zone (Neil Armstrong took control of his lunar module when he didn’t like the looks of the originally planned landing site).
- Mars Next: Skip all that and go to Mars. This is the option being pursued by the organization I’m most interested in, Mars One. Their plan is to send supplies and robotics to Mars in advance, have the robotics do some initial setup, and then send colonists.
Which option is best? Well, I’ll leave that up to the experts, but most of the panelists agreed that we need to make our minds up soon.
- Going to Mars? I hope you don’t have issues with your body image. Long-duration space missions are pretty unforgiving on the human body. Astronauts lose bone density, muscle, and their sense of balance. The cardiovascular system becomes “lazy” because it doesn’t have to pump blood so hard. Faces get puffed up from too much fluid in the head, though that effect does go away after a while. Eyes can change to the point where some astronauts who also happen to be aviators were told that they can no longer fly because their vision had changed. Proposed routes to Mars can take a little over four months to almost nine months each way, so don’t forget to take your ergonomic bicycle and treadmill or you will face the consequences when you get back to Earth.
- Humans can do science faster and smarter than robots can. Okay, I already knew that, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat the point. The probes that actually make it to their goal, whether Martian orbit or the Martian surface, have a good habit of outlasting their warranties. However, it often takes them months or years to cover terrain that a human can cross in a day or two. They also can’t look at a rock formation and think, “Hm, that’s interesting.” In fact, they might just think of it as an obstacle in their way and try to get around it unless told otherwise by their human masters back on Earth. Humans on the ground (or “regolith” if you prefer) can make the judgment calls necessary to make that revolutionary scientific breakthrough.
- We still have some learning to do. NASA is still conducting tests of the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System meant to send people to Mars by the 2030s. When asked whether NASA was paying attention to private organizations like Mars One, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden allowed that perhaps NASA could watch and learn.
- Having a famous astronaut on your side sure doesn’t hurt. Buzz Aldrin admitted in recent interviews that he probably would say no to a trip to Mars, but he is a supporter of the next generation of human explorers. Besides, how many people would have paid attention to the Humans to Mars Summit if Buzz Aldrin hadn’t been there? I would have, but I’d bet my ticket to Mars that he is drawing some of the attention to plans for Mars exploration.
Just talking about it won’t get us to Mars, of course. The good part is that space exploration isn’t just the province of fickle politicians anymore. Sure, NASA’s in on manned missions to Mars, but so are Dennis Tito with his Inspiration Mars (a Mars flyby by 2018) and Bas Lansdorp with Mars One (Martian settlement by 2023). Sure, you could call a lot of them long shots. However, if you have enough intelligent people involved, we will go to Mars.
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