TCS Daily

Creating a Martian Chronicle

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 29, 2002 12:00 AM

As Webb Wilder says, I can't predict the future, but I can take a hint. For the last couple of weeks I've been writing about Mars, and specifically about the prospects and pitfalls of visits to Mars, colonies on Mars, and longer-term efforts to modify the climate of Mars so as to make it more hospitable to humans. In particular, I wrote last week about some environmentalists' likely opposition to terraforming - or even visiting - Mars.

No sooner did I start this enterprise than news events began to fall into place. First came the story of environmental activists' efforts to ban lunar development by designating the Moon a World Heritage Site. One anti-development activist complained: "There is little concern about protecting any solar system body from human exploitation or contamination." Then there were concerns about humans being exposed to Martian chemicals on visits there.

Next came news that water ice has been found, in "vast" quantities, frozen just below the surface of Mars. There were even reports that NASA might be getting serious about plans for a human, rather than simply a robotic, mission to Mars in the not-too distant future.

Two weeks ago, this all seemed more remote than it does now. There are several reasons for this, some good, some not so good. The good reasons are that (1) water on Mars makes the notion of settlement there much more appealing - so the long-term payoff of Mars missions just increased drastically; (2) water on Mars can provide fuel or reaction mass for the return trip, making travel to Mars much, much cheaper than would otherwise be the case, thus decreasing the short-term cost drastically; (3) water on Mars makes the planet geologically (well, areologically) more interesting, and quite possibly biologically more interesting, since where there is water it is more likely (though still not all that likely) that there will be life.

The not-so-good reasons are; (1) "hey, Mars is in the news - let's go there!" and (2) NASA's hope that a Mars mission will give it an excuse to make an exit from the disastrously mismanaged International Space Station program, or at least to change the subject.

I don't know how serious NASA is about sending humans to Mars, but since the disastrous "90 day" mission plan of the early 1990s - which was wildly overpriced and clumsy, so much so that it killed President George H.W. Bush's program for a human mission to Mars before it started -- NASA has looked much more seriously at less-expensive plans like Bob Zubrin's Mars Direct mission architecture, and NASA now believes that it could do a human mission for something in the neighborhood of $50 billion total, about a tenth of the "90 day" plan's estimate. That's much more realistic, and the mission itself would be more productive than the earlier version, which was chiefly designed to produce as many Shuttle missions as possible. The White House can sign off on a $50 billion multiyear program where a $400-500 billion program was just impossible. (It probably won't hurt that Florida is an important state for the '04 Presidential election, either).

However, NASA's management credibility is pretty low. The problems with the International Space Station aren't all NASA's fault - some come from problems of international relations and domestic budgetary politics over which NASA has no control - but plenty of them are NASA's fault, and it's going to have an uphill battle persuading people that it's up to the job.

Set against this credibility problem, there is bipartisan support on the Hill for Mars missions -- Senate Space Subcommittee chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) recently called for a Mars initiative, though he also stressed NASA's credibility problems, and other leaders have been supportive. In addition, grassroots nonprofit groups like the Mars Society and the National Space Society have been thinking through the implications of Mars missions and can be expected to support a mission that makes sense.

So what makes sense? There seems to be one important area of consensus: whatever we do, this time it should be to stay, not a simple "flags and footprints" program like Apollo. Apollo was a technical triumph, but it was one that wasn't followed up, and its promise was largely squandered.

Astronauts going to Mars will have to stay longer anyway, by dint of orbital dynamics and the simple need to make the long trip each way worthwhile. But if the mission is properly planned and - as in the Mars Direct architecture - is designed to make use of indigenous Martian resources, that won't be terribly difficult, and it will lay the foundation for a permanent settlement. Such an approach would have all sorts of benefits, and would be very much in keeping with America's character as a frontier nation.

Might we even see a new space race? China has recently begun making noises about putting humans in space, and as a rising power it may look for outlets for nationalistic energies that will generate positive feelings at home without scaring the neighbors. A mission to Mars might be just the thing. It would be extraordinarily ambitious given the state of China's space program now, but perhaps no more ambitious than America's desire to go to the Moon was in 1960.

All of this is likely to surface in public discussion over the next few weeks and months. Expect more environmentalists to emerge with calls to keep Mars "pristine," (by which they will mean free of those nasty cancerous humans) and more space supporters to appear calling for us to extend the frontier. Me, I'm siding with the frontier. But you probably guessed that already.

NOTE: If you're really interested in what a colonized and terraformed Mars might look like, I highly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Robinson is up to date on the science, and his writing really makes you feel as if you're there, experiencing the emptiness of a near-dead world at the beginning, and sailing down the water-filled canals by the end.


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