Journey to Mars

1. Manned Mars mission: The big picture

2. Is it wise?

3. Blasted by a ray gun

4. Can't we get along?

Hubble Space Telescope photo of Mars. It's a beautiful planet, but wouldnĂ­t it be ironic if the quest to send people to Mars caused Hubble to shut down ahead of schedule? See the BIG picture. Photo: NASA

The opportunity to understand unique life forms may be irretrievably lost if we prematurely send people to Mars and contaminate it with Earthly life.

Modern Martian mission?
Flash Gordon's sidekick asks 'But Flash, is it wise?'NASA now has two rovers on Mars, and one is actually working. Opportunity, which arrived Jan. 24, is purveying pixels at a prodigious pace, showing Earthlings the view from a Martian crater. Meanwhile, sister robot Spirit is still dis-spirited. Controllers are tweaking Spirit's computer, which rebooted about 130 times, in an effort to inspire Spirit to get back to business.

But before Spirit suffered its interplanetary migraine, it had already proved inspirational to Washington. On Jan. 14, in the afterglow of the craft's landing (and two days short of a year after the launch of the doomed shuttle Columbia), President Bush announced a ramped-up program for exploring the moon and Mars.

Instead of using robots like the two Martian wanderers, however, Bush wants to send flesh-and-blood astronauts.

The announcement set the stage for a rerun of an old argument. Should we explore space with dumb-but-cheap robots (the two on Mars cost a combined $820-million, NASA says), or more capable, but vastly more expensive, humans?

detailed photograph of pitted reddish planet

The Bush space itinerary calls for NASA to establish a manned moon base between 2015 and 2020, and then head to Mars. The White House justified the new plans in these terms: "America's history is built on a desire to open new frontiers and to seek new discoveries. Exploration, like investments in other Federal science and technology activities, is an investment in our future. President Bush is committed to a long-term space exploration program benefiting not only scientific research, but also the lives of all Americans. The exploration vision also has the potential to drive innovation, development, and advancement in the aerospace and other high-technology industries."

Ironically, while flooring the gas for long-distance human exploration, Bush told NASA to hit the brakes on its two major human space programs: The space shuttle will retire around 2010, and NASA will "complete its work on the International Space Station by 2010, fulfilling our commitment to our 15 partner countries."

'The following preview has been approved for all audiences...'Here's NASA's explanation for going to Mars. Does it hold water? (764K movie) NASA

Why NASA loves Mars
If Bush was vague on the scientific rationale for sending people to Mars, NASA offered detail on the decision to send two rovers to the planet. In three movie trailers, NASA positioned the rovers as a natural outgrowth of the long human fascination with the Red Planet, subject of countless sci-fi novels and movies of equally questionable quality.

Beyond sci-fi, Mars has also attracted space cadets determined to send people into the unknown. The Mars Society, for example, a non-profit group that promotes human exploration and settlement of the Red One, lists a "powerful" set of reasons for sending sentient mammals to Mars.

To find out whether Mars ever had life, which could "show that the origin of life is not unique to the Earth, and, by implication, reveal a universe that is filled with life and probably intelligence as well."

To reflect knowledge back to Earth. Robotic studies of Venus, the society says, helped prove the power of greenhouse warming, legitimizing concerns that humans are cooking Earth by burning fossil fuels.

To meet a challenge. "Civilizations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. The time is past for human societies to use war as a driving stress for technological progress."

For the youth, the opportunity, the future. Mars, the group avers, is "a New World, filled with history waiting to be made by a new and youthful branch of human civilization that is waiting to be born. ... We must go, not for us, but for a people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians."

Rocks and pebbles litter rust-colored soil.
This true-color image, by the panoramic camera on Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, shows a football-sized rock dubbed "Adirondack." Spirit lumbered across the sand at Gusev Crater to reach this stone on Jan. 18, 2004, three days after the six-wheeler rolled into action. The rock was chosen as Spirit's first target because its dust-free, flat surface is ideal for grinding and analysis. Photo: NASA/JPL

Makin' sense?
The Why Files asked Michael Carr, a U.S. Geological Survey planetary geologist who headed the Viking orbiter imaging team in the 1970s, about the justification for human exploration. By email, he told us, "We cannot justify human exploration of Mars purely on scientific grounds, but if we are going to Mars for political, social or some other reason ... the people should be prepared and equipped to do the best science possible."

Carr cautioned about certain risks of sending people to Mars. "Probably the most important questions we wish to answer with respect to Mars are whether indigenous life ever developed there, and, if so, is there extant life still present. ... A major effort should be made to answer these questions before humans contaminate the planet. ...The opportunity to characterize an entirely different biota from that on Earth may be irretrievably lost if we prematurely send people to Mars and release terrestrial organics to be dispersed around the planet, and thereby confuse the indigenous signal...."

Black and white photo shows dust swirls.
One of Opportunity's first images shows dusty soil, marked with the imprint of air-bags that cushioned the landing. Photo: NASA

The contamination concern arose last November, when the Japanese space agency announced that an unsterilized, out-of-control spacecraft called Nozomi might crash-land on Mars -- unless the long trip through space ray-gunned all life from the spacecraft. (We'll return to the health effects of space radiation.)

However, Robert Zubrin, president of the board of directors of the Mars Society and a long-time advocate of human travel to Mars, says the two planets are already linked through meteorites. "About 500 pounds of Mars rocks land on Earth every year," he adds, and recent research indicates that they never heated above 40 degrees C while traveling to Earth. "If there had been biological material, it would not have been sterilized, so the two planets are not biologically isolated," Zubrin says. "Nature has plenty of spacecraft of its own."

Profile of man in silver spacesuit.In 1961, Allen Shepard became America's first spaceman. Photo: NASA

While some people argue humans make better geologists than robots, Carr wrote, "Unfortunately I do not think that people can work very effectively on Mars. I was part of some studies in the 1980's as to what people might do at Mars. Mostly what they will do is run robots! The problem is that survival is so difficult that, at least in the early stages of human exploration, people will not be traveling far from a fixed base. ... In most of the scenarios we examined, the people extended their limited reach with the use of robotics."

Buddy can you spare a diamond?
When President George Bush I tried to launch a manned Mars exploration program in 1989, NASA estimated the price tag at between $400-billion and $700-billion, and the program abruptly died. President Bush II did not mention a price tag for his vision, although he did specify that the heavy spending would start in 2009, after he would be out of office.

In a time of record deficits, is sending people to Mars a wiser use of funds than ensuring national security, paying for medical care or retirement, or funding education, or science and health research?

Beyond this question, some skeptics saw the plan as a step toward military domination of space or a care package for the aerospace industry.

Has anybody thought about space radiation?

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