Friday, October 02, 2009

More Martian Ramblings

Soon after posting a short note on Paul Davies's proposal about getting to Mars cheaply by staging one-way missions, I ran into my friend Oliver Morton, who pointed me towards a post on his Mainly Martian blog that with takes apart Davies's claims in meticulous detail. Oliver is a Mars-head from way back - his book, Mapping Mars, is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of observation and exploration of the red planet - and his demolition job is pretty comprehensive. Cutting out a return vehicle wouldn't lower the cost of the mission by as much as Davies suggests; if the one-way trip isn't a suicide mission, the Mars explorers will have to set up a permanent base camp under extreme and arduous conditions, and will need continuous resupply from Earth for the forseeable future; the 'lifeboat' argument for space colonisation elides the uncomfortable fact that most people will be left behind. And so on.

All in all, it's a bracing dose of realism. If there is a cheap way of going to Mars, a one-way trip isn't the way to do it. (Still, as an irresponsible SF writer, I feel there's plenty of fictional traction in the scenario. I've already dabbled in it, as the background story of one of the secondary characters in The Secret of Life; now I'm wondering what would happen if, say, there was a privately funded one-way mission to Mars that had to rely on viewers' ratings to keep its astronauts resupplied: a Robinson-Crusoe-On-Mars reality show. Or suppose a one-way mission made a go of it with the help of a substantial resupply programme, and fifty years later their descendants were faced with the bill...).

I do take issue, though, with Oliver's last point:
Human Mars exploration is indeed a fine goal, and it is quite possible that fairly early on there will be some who elect to stay. But the only real argument for doing it sooner or rather than later is the selfish one of wanting to see/participate in it personally. I can appreciate that, but I don't think it's a compelling policy point. There are a lot of other big exciting projects to inspire us -- a new energy infrastructure for the world, the millennium development goals, in pure science the development of telescopes for characterising the atmospheres and possible biospheres of exoplanets.
Yes, going to Mars as soon as possible for personal reasons isn't a compelling reason (even if you are a zillionaire who can fund the entire caper). And yes, there are plenty of other ways to spend the money. But I'm not convinced that funding of expensive space missions diverts essential resources from more pressing problems here on Earth. It's a straw man argument that's been around since the Apollo missions, and there's no evidence that cash cut from NASA funds goes to humanitarian aid or other scientific projects instead; either it goes elsewhere in the overloaded federal budget, or it simply isn't spent. And it isn't as if all that money is blasted into orbit, never to return. Most of it stays right here. It's spent on research and development, on construction of infrastructure, and on the salaries of the thousands of men and women who are involved in supporting manned missions in every kind of way. And if manned missions are cut out of the NASA programme, then all that expertise is lost, and so is the momentum.

The International Space Station is due to be decomissioned in a few years; if it is, that will put an end to the need for manned missions to low Earth orbit. And although there's talk about going to the Moon, we've already been there, and the main rationale for returning is that it would be a staging post or training ground for the Big Leap Outwards. Given that funds are limited, why not start planning and working towards that Big Leap now, with missions to Near Earth asteroids, a round trip around Venus, and maybe a mission to Phobos, rather than a diversion to the Moon? The romantic in me would like to think that kind of thing might be possible in my life time, at least . . .

Xposted to Pyr-o-mania


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