The next step: should we go to Mars?

From a Worldcon panel Race to the Red planet with science fiction writers Kim Stanley Robinson and David Levine and physicist Jim Benford, identical twin brother of science fiction writer Greg Benford (who was also at the con, which made for plenty of confusion).

It’s a fact that humanity already has the technology to go to Mars, and to put people on the surface of the planet that’s the most hospitable to human life outside Earth. So hospitable that it would kill us in minutes. But we can do it. There are books written on the subject. Kim Stanley Robinson says that his books are often quoted as a blueprint for going to Mars, but they, in turn, are based on real research (a good reference book is Looking for life – searching the solar system, edited by Paul Clancy, Andre Brack and Gerda Horneck. PS – if you want to buy this book, do so at ABE (http://www.abebooks.com/), where it is factors cheaper than at regular online venues).

The main issue about going to Mars is getting into orbit. We have chemical propulsion rockets that would take us there in about nine months. New propulsion technology is continuously being invented. Ion rockets are an option but are slow to build speed. Nuclear power is an option, and various forms of slingshots, formerly thought outrageous, are being looked into.

We can shield astronauts against radiation. Normal cosmic background radiation exposure for a duration of a 9-month trip would increase the risk of radiation-related problems by 1%. It’s the solar flares that will kill you, and they are as unpredictable as they are vicious (for a realistic description of what a solar flare will do to astronauts, read Titan by Stephen Baxter). Fortunately the very thing we will be carrying on the trip, water, is a very good shield against radiation. Even towards the end of the trip, you will have plenty of water, because it never leaves the closed system of the ship (go figure). Unfortunately, water is heavy, which brings us back to the problem of getting into orbit.

But all these problems can be solved, even with current technology.

The main question is: why would we want to go?

Yes, why? This has been the major source of apathy that has plagued the space program. The public perception is that it’s a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere, that nothing ever came out of the Moon landings except a few rocks in museums. In reality, the race to get people on the Moon delivered many technologies we are still using today but whose origins people have long since forgotten. It is true that the Moon landings themselves were too short to deliver much scientifically useful data. They were not a scientific undertaking, but a matter of prestige. They were, perhaps, an opportunity missed. We have had people on the Moon, but we are still unsure as to whether there is water.

Going to Mars is expensive. That said, estimates are (according to David Levine) that it would take four years’ worth of NASA’s annual budget, money that’s currently being frittered away here and there.
Space travel has lost its sexy image. People can’t see the point, and therefore the collective will to do it has evaporated. When going to the Moon was a matter of beating the Soviets there, there was a reason; people need a reason. We now know we’re alone in the solar system, and that knowledge is rather depressing. If we really must continue to look at these dead pieces of rock, why not keep sending our little robots there instead of risking people’s lives?

Indeed, we have learned a lot from the rovers, even if they are now all out of action. The new Curiosity vehicle will have more capability to ‘defend’ itself against adverse geology. It will run on nuclear power and will have a laser to blast things out of its way. Successful though the rovers are, fact remains that they have covered a grand total of 14 kilometres, their success rate has been 50%, and they are liable to run into serious problems when faced with obstacles a human would find trivial. They can’t make quick decisions. Time lag in transmission is about 18 minutes, so communicating with them is a slow and arduous process. Do we wait that long? In short, a human observer could collect much more data much more efficiently.

But why would we need this data?

We could be doing it as an insurance policy. Kim Stanley Robinson said that this notion is both simplistic and naïve. Mars is not easy. Mars is cold and inhospitable. It is dusty. Dust gets into everything. It has less energy than Earth. While 15% less sunlight might not be detectable with the human eye, generating energy through solar power will require more effort. Terraforming is largely in the realm of Science Fiction, and the question is if we should attempt it in the first place. Is it ethical to modify an environment that may harbour information vital to understanding our origins?

Because Mars is now thought to be possibly the originator of life on Earth. Jim Benford said that lately there have been patterns observed in methane production in the Martian atmosphere. Methane can be the result of volcanic activity, of which we have no proof that it exists on Mars. In fact people agree that Mars is volcanically dead.

Methane could rise from past volcanic activity, but the patterns are seasonal.

That leaves the possibility of bacterial activity.

It is now widely believed that we will probably find microbial life on Mars, either as fossils or extant. The question is whether this life has the same roots as life on Earth or is completely alien. That, according to David Levine, is one of the great questions we can solve by going to Mars. We need to re-capture public interest. Some of that has already happened. With all the amazing pictures available, the place is becoming real; it is coming to life, both figuratively and perhaps literally.

Not one nation should be asked to bear the burden of mounting an expedition. It will need to be a collective human effort in the name of public domain science. More nations need to become involved.
Overall, having worked in science, I am sadly not convinced that humanity collectively values pure science as much as it should. There will probably no major step towards going to Mars until a group of people finds it necessary to do so, and that will probably be for emotional and all the wrong reasons.

Picture: Images like this one, the Echus Chasma on Mars, snaffled from the Mars Express site, do a lot to make Mars feel like a real place. You can almost see yourself clamber up the dunes and slide – wheeeeeee!! – down the hill again.

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