Just as Director Griffin felt it necessary to outline in regards to our effort to The Moon, one must wonder why exactly we’re going to Mars, if for no other reason than to speculate as to the chances of actually getting there. The 2030s are a long way off, and the conditions that existed in the 1990s, making long-term funding difficult to maintain for any length of time is clearly reflected in the budget NASA’s been given to accomplish the task. Things won’t likely get better between now and then. We have yet to read his “Why go to Mars?” paper.
When the project was announced as the ultimate goal of the 2004 Bush Administration edict for space exploration, it was realized that not only was the goal a very long way off, but that there ought to be compelling reasons. The occupant of an early post that coordinated with the Presidential Oversight Office told the BBC in 2004 that it was better to have a project when trying to secure funding for the agency than without a clear goal that con be articulated in a few sentences. But are we really going to the red planet? Are we really setting out to colonize the solar system?
Consider the folks working on the anti-matter drive at NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC). They don’t quite have warp-technology yet, but this incredible source of power is capable of sending a craft to Mars in very short order without the burden of carrying heavy fuel around. It’s just a matter of using it without radiating everyone on board and finding some anti-matter to “burn” in a regulated environment. Even the relatively mass-efficient ion-drive systems that are currently being pioneered require an energy source, be they solar, as in the case of missions within the near solar system, or nuclear fission, as in the case of the recently cancelled Project Prometheus missions to Jupiter and beyond. That the fuel to weight ratio is proving to be a major obstacle in our ability to move beyond our own planet, the ability to procure anti-matter for less than $25 million per microgram would seem crucial. Can Mars help?
It is perhaps fitting that as New Horizons (perhaps NASA’s last probe headed to the outer solar system for awhile) circles around Jupiter to achieve the fastest velocity yet achieved by an Earth-made space craft on its way to Pluto and the Kupier belt, that we should consider how space travel progresses once we have a base on Mars. Mars could be our launching point for setting off to the moons of the large gaseous planets, such as Titan or Europa.
The most ardent supporters say a powerful motivation is simply, “because it’s there.” That’s the very same infectious optimism Mike Griffith says he’d like to foster among employees and contractors or NASA. That would have to, defacto, include the private companies that NASA will be purchasing services and materials from, rather than “house brand” contractors. Robert Zubrin threw his hat into the speculative ring when he published The Case for Mars in 1996. Those in the Mars Society have also gone to great lengths to make a case for Mars and even devote resources to lobbing the political process.
Some see a mission that has Mars as its end point takes money away from developing The Moon, though NASA has made some noise about readying the area for commercial projects and then letting them take the lead as the agency focuses its attentions further afield.
The possibility of life on Mars is also touted as being a powerful motivator, however schemes that would terrafrom the planet might destroy any potential life that resides beneath the Martian soil. Nonetheless, when you ask private citizens who already have an interest in the red planet, it is the answer that comes up again and again. Perhaps this is because the commonly held belief that Earth needs a break from the crush of humanity now occupying it.
Uniting the planet Earth in some sort of peaceful unity has been cited by some as a compelling reason. While the defense budget pales in comparison to yearly expenditures at NASA, the likelihood of it becoming obsolete is as unlikely as it is tempting. Some agencies are actively perusing the colonization model of Mars exploration, with a recent second phase of planning already in progress as of 2006.
People as influential as Lockheed Martin are very seriously considering Mars colonization from an economic standpoint. From a paper prepared as recently as 2005, essentially to use the challenge as a “pressure cooker” of ideas that would eventually lead to exploring other area of the solar system. They lay out the exploitation of Mars as a three step process of exploration (the phase we’re currently in), colonization and terraforming to bring a large swath of the population off “old home Terra.” The point to missions such as the ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Direct ) Mars Direct program that is in the planning stages as the most likely embodiment of the second phase of that timeline.
Fact is, those who are within the agency have given guarded answers at best when asked any particulars about the plan for Mars as it pertains to Constellation. I wonder if they’re not just keeping an ace up NASA’s proverbial sleeve, though. Work has begun on Martian greenhouse structures, and this is a concrete step toward creating the sort of presence that is meant to be permanent. The public certainly is for it, making up for some of the lack of enthusiasm about going back to The Moon.
If the citizens of the US make it known that they really think it’s important to get off this rock in a meaningful way, and to lead innovation in aerospace innovation, then the issue becomes one of turning the public tide. As one official said, “Exploration is the byproduct of a healthy country.”
So, let’s explore, already!