Mars or bust? Let’s be smart about this

While 2020 has largely been a huge sandwich in many ways, it’s hard to deny that it’s been a very big year for space news. We saw astronauts boarding the ISS from American soil in an American-made rocket for the first time in almost a decade. And when he wasn’t sending people up, Elon Musk literally launched hundreds of satellites, both his own and those of commercial customers, into space. But both NASA and the private sector have set their sights on bigger goals. There are plans to put people back on the moon in the next few years, but Mr. Musk has his eyes on Mars.

Can we do both? We should? This is the question asked and answered by David W. Brown in the Wall Street Journal this week. Brown claims that the moon is a target that was for a previous generation of pioneers. He sees Mars as a “bigger and better target” for our space program. But the dream of putting people on Mars was alternately embraced and rejected by a succession of presidents. Both George HW Bush and his son George W. Bush embraced Mars as a target. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama rejected the idea in favor of goals that were closer to home. Donald Trump prefers the moon as the target, but NASA claims that Mars is on the menu.

Brown argues that achieving one of them is a huge budget challenge, so it should be one or the other. And he clearly prefers Mars. (Subscription required)

The big advantage of the month, of course, is that it’s easier to reach and I’ve done it before. But for all the difficulties of landing on Mars and establishing a human presence there, it is clearly the top prospect for sustainable exploration. Mars is a planet of good faith with air, ice, wind, weather and useful resources. It also has real resemblances to the Earth. A day on Mars is just over 24 hours. The planet, on average, is only 30 degrees colder than Antarctica. Its gravity is one-third that of the Earth (compared to the moon, which is about one-sixth). It has its own complex geology on Monday, from the highest mountain in the solar system to a canyon network that makes the Grand Canyon look like a simple local attraction by comparison. It could be a home for people in a way that the moon will never do.

The American space program has always aimed to put people on Mars. Before the word astronaut was invented or there was an agency called NASA, there was “Das Marsprojekt”, a speculative work of fiction written in 1948 by Wernher von Braun, who developed missile technology for Nazi Germany before escaping into the army. US. . He built the rocket that will put Explorer 1, the first American satellite, into space and became the leading engineer and best-known promoter of the first American space program.

While I’m a big fan of space exploration, I’m always a little more cautious about supporting manned missions, as opposed to remotely controlled robotic efforts. While we are well endowed with heroes willing to risk their lives for the sake of promoting science, those lives should never be foolishly wasted, and I would argue that a trip to Mars is still far beyond our ability to complete it safely and to return our astronauts return home in one piece.

Many of the things Brown says about Mars are true. There is air (fashion) and ice, weather and some resources. But this description paints a terribly pink picture of a place that is much closer to hell than heaven. The “air” on Mars is totally unbreathable, lacking measurable oxygen levels. And the surface air pressure is about six millibars. This is only half of the 1% pressure on Earth at sea level. It is not a complete vacuum, but if you came to the surface of the planet without a suit of pressure and a suitable source of air, you would die of depressurization long before you die of suffocation. And, although there are spots on Mars where the temperature rises almost 30 degrees during the day, it drops to hundreds of degrees below zero at night.

In other words, Mars is not really more surviving than the moon, if you don’t have a technology to keep you alive. And if this technology fails and you are exposed to the environment, it’s all over. The farther you are from Earth and in an environment like this, the more likely you are that your technology will eventually disappoint you. Even Elon Musk has acknowledged that people who go on his planned trip to Mars will almost certainly never return to Earth alive.

It is also worth remembering that arriving and landing safely on the red planet is not exactly routine. Yes, we had great results with quite a few rovers, but still, more than half of the missions sent to Mars failed to prevent the landing. And you only get one hit.

I’m still going to Mars, but it looks like it’s going to have to be done in stages, and the process will take a lot longer than some of the sunny projections we hear. To do this in a smart way, robotic missions should land first, with plenty of supplies, including oxygen, water, food and anything else you would need to survive. A return vehicle should land there as well and remain operational and ready for use before the first astronauts leave Earth. Even then, the prospects are far from certain.

I’m not saying we can’t do it. I think we can and I hope we can. But we have to be smart. And it will take a long time and an amazing amount of money.