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article imageOp-Ed: The only option is Mars - Because it’s hard

By Paul Wallis     Apr 17, 2010 in Science
John F Kennedy once said, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” That mentality gave the US dominance in space for decades. The fight between the Moon and Mars for priority is a case defining Kennedy's vision.
The space program is a new battleground for America’s politicians. Given that this group of people have shown a vision for the future of the USA which could barely stand comparison with The Flintstones, this isn’t where the space debate needs to be.
The vision has to come from the nation. This is the future in question. It's not about some piddling little bit of personal ego stroking and the niceties of some more snide sycophancy to donors. An insular institution which has overseen the virtual collapse of American dignity and self respect over the last few decades can shut up and listen for once.
Space is the heart of many of America's greatest achievements. Everything in a Western home has some sort of technological relationship to the space program, from Teflon to computers. The human race hasn't done too badly out of the results, either.
There’s no doubt that many feathers have been ruffled by the cancellation of the Constellation and shuttle programs. That’s quite understandable, given the amount of commitment made by so many space professionals.
However, a bit of thought may underline another option. Commercial space travel can, (if it gets a bit more ambitious and less grandstand oriented), achieve a Moon project. This is a logical development in space research, which happens to be based on commercial technology, anyway.
The Moon does have a few things going for it:
1. It’s a comparatively safe test base for a range of space technology.
2. It contains some very interesting scientific prospects, and is a place where a lot of space science could be based. It’s the 21st century’s Antarctica.
3. It’s cheaper.
4. It’s a great place to play golf.
Mars, on the other hand, is tough by any standards using current top technology. A whole raft of technology, similar to the original Moon landings, is required.
The tough parts indicate how anything but easy a Mars landing would be. The trip is hard, and the landing could be really hard. These are the known basic hazards:
1. Distances are extreme range for any possible backup to a Mars mission.
2. It’s a long trip, using rockets. A better drive would be required.
3. The resources required have to fit into the equivalent of a tin can, and move back and forth between orbits.
4. Survival systems for both the trip and landing have to be excellent, better than anything previous.
5. Navigation and landing can’t be taken for granted, either. Landing probes has been problematic in the past.
6. Micro dust which is all pervasive, and a probable threat to equipment.
7. It’s ultra expensive.
In other words, it would be a major accomplishment. At this point in history, comparing the Moon and Mars is like comparing going to the corner shop and traveling around the world in a matchbox.
Mars forces technological progression into a new mode. The Moon wouldn’t be a rerun of the Apollo landing, but it wouldn’t require the big jump in capabilities. That’s where the real issues start to show up.
Strategically, the US did a lot better than Russia through the original Moon problem. It pushed US technology way ahead. That lead has been serious eroded by the “Tiler’s Dream” approach to the shuttles, short range vehicles. The program got bogged down in a cheapskate technical issue that should never have existed. That this approach also cost lives and scrapped projects wholesale is no recommendation for the whole concept of cheap and nasty.
(Excuse some oversimplifications. I’m trying for an article, not a library.)
It wasn’t NASA’s idea to go backwards and nowhere at the same time. The strategic vision was missing. Everything was expedient, and the result was that not a lot got done in terms of manned programs. Despite the brilliant successes of the probes, nobody took the hint that there were real options waiting to be developed.
With the greatest respect to Neil Armstrong and the other Moon advocates, it can’t be the same situation again, and it isn’t. The strategic situation is very different. The US had only one competitor in space in the 60s. Now, it’s China, India, Europe, and Russia. They’re already using better economics in their space programs than the US, too. Russia is using higher capacity payloads, and India is doing Moon surveys on a shoestring. China intends to be on the Moon in a decade. India will certainly try. Europe wouldn’t mind much, either.
The gigantic gap in technological superiority has almost vanished. It’s pointless to say the current Moon/Mars dichotomy will affect a situation that already exists. If the US is serious about getting its technical edge back in a very visible way, Mars is the place to do it. It’s currently beyond other nations’ capabilities.
The technology has to start being developed for big space missions, and Mars is the logical place to test these ideas. We’re lucky to have a planet in that range we can actually land on. Venus would be impossible, too much sulphur, and the others are out of the question. It’s Mars or start time shares on the Moon.
The long view has to open its eyes sometime. The Moon can be a secondary priority, and help build a stronger commercial space industry while it’s at it. The Moon will be colonized, regardless.
If we’re serious about going to the stars, (and we will have to, sooner or later) big changes in technology and big visions are required. We can’t explore the Sahara one grain of sand at a time. We need to know where we’re going.
Put it this way:
Space means tough problems by definition, and lots of them. Either we beat them, or they beat us. There’s no draws in survival, and space is where we have to be. Humanity may be in space for millions of years, with each individual carrying their own ration of problems. The sooner we get our fingers out and do the hard yards, the easier it’ll be for the future.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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