"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Getting Serious about 'Humans Orbiting Mars'

The Planetary Society issued a new report detailing a path that puts humans on Mars by the late 2030s. As a Society member, I helped fund this report. I have a vested interest. Happily, this report is designed with non-scientists like me in mind. You don't need to be an astrophysicist to follow along.

Humans Orbiting Mars:
A Critical Step Toward the Red Planet

Visit the Society's Page for Highlights

Mars mosaic, featuring Valles Marineris, Photo Credit: NASA

A friend recently asked me when I thought a mission like the one depicted in the smash hit The Martian might plausibly happen. I told her notwithstanding calls to get us to Mars in the 2030s, I didn't see such a mission taking place anytime before mid-century...so 2050s. Even that seems a bit too optimistic on my more negative days.

Without a Kennedy/Cold War mandate like we had in the 1960s, there simply isn't enough money going into space exploration. Getting to Mars by the 2030s would take--at least on the scale depicted in The Martian--far more money then NASA currently receives. The Society's report backs this up.

For people wanting to take a step beyond the entertaining spectacle of The Martian, this report is an ideal starting point. Over the course of 40 or so pages, including helpful illustrations and bullet points, you'll get a sense of what it will actually take to put "boots on the ground" on Mars in our lifetimes. I'm not a big fan of that militaristic image, but its the title of Chapter 4.3 and well worth reading.

The key idea in "Humans Orbiting Mars" is having the first human mission to Mars orbit but not land on the planet. Test the technologies. Prove the concept. Then return for the flags and footprints ritual later. It worked for the Apollo space program. Count me in. (The plan also includes a very cool touchdown on a Martian moon.)

Here's a great quote from the report. It sums up my frustration: "The history of humanity's effort to reach Mars is defined by a disconnect between ambition and budget." So true. The good news in the Society's report is that a human mission to Mars is possible, even if NASA's budget only rises with inflation. We don't need another Cold War.

I hope you'll at least take a peek at this report. Here is a link if you want to dive straight in (PDF, approx. 3 MB).

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