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 wouldnít it be ironic if the quest to send
people to Mars caused Hubble to shut down ahead of schedule? See
the BIG picture. Photo:
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.
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?
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."
NASA's explanation for going to Mars. Does it hold water? (764K
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
sentient mammals to Mars.
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
To reflect knowledge back to Earth. Robotic
studies of Venus, the society says, helped prove the power of
legitimizing concerns that humans are cooking Earth by burning
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
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."
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.
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...."
One of Opportunity's first images shows dusty
soil, marked with the imprint of air-bags that cushioned the landing.
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."
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."
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?