Does Mars need humans?

Today, Hickam and Simberg watch the moon and the Red Planet for signs of human life. Yesterday, they assessed national space ambitions and NASA's role in achieving them. Later this week, they'll talk about the Mars mission, evolution in space, post-communist space exploration and other far-out topics.

Infinity is not the place for zero-sum thinking By Rand Simberg
Homer, yesterday we at least reached a consensus on why we should have a national space program, if not on who should be funded to implement it, or with whose funds. If we agree that the ultimate purpose is to utilize the resources off-planet, and expand humanity (and hopefully, the human values of freedom and prosperity) into that realm, then the question arises: "Off planet" is a big place — where should we go first?

In the wake of the Columbia loss almost five years ago, many thought that it was important for the president's new space policy to include a destination in order to break us out of the merry-go-round in which we've been circling the planet only 200 miles above the surface for the last third of a century, since the end of Apollo. He did this, in naming "the moon, Mars and beyond," but it set off a debate in the space community about whether or not there was any value in going to the moon first, or at all. The main objections were from the Marsophiles, many of whom consider the Red Planet the only interesting place in the solar system, at least in terms of its potential for human habitation, and lunar excursions a pointless diversion from that goal. (They apparently ignore the issue that its potential for life, and possibly non-Earthly life, is one of the things that makes it interesting, and that if it's discovered there, the entire planet may be quarantined from contamination by terrestrial life, in the interest of environmental preservation.)

Of course, this just demonstrates that, just as is the case with terrestrial travel planning, where we want to go depends on what we want to accomplish, and what financial and technical resources are available to us. If I want to gamble, and there are cheap fares to Vegas, the solution is pretty obvious.

It's not so obvious for space destinations, though, partly because, as a result of (correctly or otherwise) perceived high costs and the associated perception of the need for government funding, it continues to be viewed as a collective endeavor. If we have to jointly plan a vacation, and I want to hit the Strip, and you want to mellow out in Myrtle Beach, we may have an irreconcilable difference.

But when it comes to space, let's assume for a minute that I'm doing the travel planning, and poor Homer has to (no doubt grumpily, or at least that would be the case for me) come along for the ride.

Me? I want to do things that make it as cheap to get to as many, and many kinds, of places as possible, as soon as possible. As long as we continue to use chemical rockets (and even if we sensibly start to develop nuclear ones) that rely on reaction mass for propulsion, I think that we ought to be scouting out and finding sources of propellants (and energy) that don't have to be hauled up, at great expense, out of the deep gravity well of our home planet. So I'd be heading for places that have high prospects for processable fuel sources and low energy requirements to get to them. Based on our knowledge right now, that means (perhaps) the moon, which may have ice at the poles that can be converted to liquid-oxygen/liquid-hydrogen propellants, but perhaps even better, near-Earth objects that may be dead comets made of ice, or carbonaceous materials that would contain the elements that would allow the manufacture of other fuels, such as methane or propane.

Exploiting near-Earth objects would have the additional benefit of helping us learn how to reliably divert them, should any of them be on an impact course for our precious home world, with the threat of delivering unto us a fiery blast with a long winter thereafter — the probable fate of the dinosaurs (which, it must be noted, having brains the size of a grape, didn't have a space program of any sort, other than perhaps dumbly watching the approaching fireball). They're also a lot easier to get to than the moon, though the trip time is longer.

In addition to that, I'd also be developing means of gathering large amounts of power in space and learning to beam it to vehicles in space for propulsion, and perhaps to the ground, to provide clean power. We should also be harnessing the almost limitless energy of the sun for Earth.

But I understand that others may have other priorities (and you may as well, Homer — we'll find out in your response). But see, that's the beauty of my priorities. My priorities make it possible for everyone to get a pony, as long as they're not into immediate gratification. If we focus our resources on those things that allow us to build on them to do other things, then I can afford to use my space transport ticket to go to the Wynn's Lunar Casino, while you can use yours to go to the beach resort (under the dome, of course, until we get that pesky terra-forming thing down) on the slopes of Olympus Mons. And we won't have to reach a "consensus," because, like travel planning on Earth, it will be up to individuals, not the collective.

I used to have a signature on Usenet that said, "It's not NASA's job to send a man to Mars. It's NASA's job to make it possible for the National Geographic Society to send people to Mars."

Despite the fact that the agency wants to go back to the future with "Apollo on steroids," and has almost, by administrator Mike Griffin's own admission, put itself out of the advanced R&D business, I still believe that.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and manager, as well as a commenter on space policy. He is also the blogger behind the website Transterrestrial Musings.


Great, good, happy moon people Homer Hickam
Well, that's quite the space shopping list, Rand, and I'm glad you're dreaming big, but I think you're getting a little ahead of yourself. If we hold out for your wonderful schemes, I'm afraid we'll be holding out for a very long time, and by that I mean pretty much forever. First things first, my boy, and by that I mean the moon. You see, I think the moon may very well be our country's salvation.

The sad truth is that the United States — let's face it — has not lived up to its potential in the 50 years since Sputnik, at least according to the expectations of the kids who were so excited about the future back then. Somewhere along the line, we decided we didn't want to do much in space (I missed that vote, but I'm sure there must have been one). We also decided we were too good to be an industrial country and voted to let the Chinese and other countries build all our stuff (I missed that vote, too). What kind of country just recycles its old money, reminisces about what used to be and doesn't know how to weld, to machine, to cast or to bolt things together? Not one that's on a path to future greatness, that's for certain. There are many countries that want to vault over us, that just can't wait until we're No. 2, then No. 3, then no number at all. The barbarians may not be at the gate, but they built it and know the combination of the lock. So we'd better get a better plan than what we've got, or we're going to find ourselves on the same dump as the Soviet Union.

So my plan, Rand, my solution, my hope for my country and its people lies with the moon. Not Mike Griffin's "Apollo on steroids," although that's a start. I have a grander scheme. I want to make the conquest of the moon the United States' goal for the 21st century, and through that goal to make us a great and good and happy country for generations to come.

To be a great nation and a great people, you have to do great things. Currently, we are both, thanks to what previous generations have done, but there is really nothing we're doing now that would qualify. Many people thought that's where we were back in the early 1960s too. We were just going along with no plan, a people adrift. John Kennedy saw that and decided to do something about it. Everyone remembers him saying "we choose to go to the moon ... and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." That was bold and eloquent and inspiring, but these days too many people think it was just Cold War rhetoric.

I don't think so, mainly because of what JFK said immediately afterward. He said we were going to the moon "because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." Do you think he just said that because it sounded good? I don't. I think Kennedy got it right then, and he's still right. We need something as grand and glorious as going to and staying on the moon as a goal to keep us working together, to give our kids a reason to learn the hard things in school like math and science and to provide us with a national purpose while also keeping active our industrial base. President Kennedy didn't say it because he thought he didn't have to, but I will. For a country like ours that needs to stay ahead of the world or go under, we must do great, ambitious things like going to the moon to survive.

So let's do it, Rand. Let's build moon stations similar to those we have in the Antarctic, with somewhat similar goals: scientific knowledge, national pride and a sense of duty to our planet. And once we're committed to staying, we'll start finding better ways to go, and more reasons to keep going, and then maybe we can even get around to your dreams in space. But even if we don't, we'll be making stuff again, new stuff, stuff we can't even imagine! And, oh, the things we'll learn about ourselves along the way! We'll be great again. And good. And happy. If we don't, we won't be any of those things. This I believe.

Homer Hickam is an engineer, former NASA designer and astronaut trainer, veteran of the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam and author of nine bestselling books, including the acclaimed memoir "Rocket Boys." which was made into the film, "October Sky."

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