Mars and beyond

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 14, 2004

This may come as something of a shock, but like President Bush, I’d like to see a research facility established on the Moon and I’d like to see America send a person to Mars. President Bush was scheduled to outline a new initiative for manned space exploration yesterday that calls for $1 billion in increased funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration over the next five years.

If he stuck to his pre-released speech, the plan is to establish a lunar base within the next 20 years and land the first human on Mars sometime after 2030. This is not as ambitious as early hints of this policy indicated. In trial balloons &uot;leaked&uot; to the media late last year, the plan would have put Americans on Mars in about a decade. That would have been very, very ambitious – probably too far-reaching.

The billion-dollar startup fee would not come close to realizing either of the two initiatives Bush proposed, by the way. Both projects would carry price tags in the hundreds of billions of dollars. These are both grand scale projects and not nearly as easy as you might think if your view of space exploration comes from popular science fiction movies.

The Moon has no atmosphere, no water so far as anybody knows, high doses of solar and cosmic radiation, and temperature extremes that turn Earthly sidewalks and highways into dust within a few weeks. As you can tell from the woeful state of the international space station and the billions that have gone into it, just planning to build a viable lunar base would take the best minds in the world. Who knows how they would manage to actually build the thing. Remember, the Moon is several days away. The space station is only a couple of hours away.

Lunar explorers would be on their own if something went wrong because it would take more than a week to launch a rescue mission from Earth. Their only chance of returning home safely if the base were compromised would be if they had their own version of the space shuttle. That, in itself, would be a few billion dollars.

Mars is a whole ‘nother can o’ worms. An interplanetary spacecraft would need energy reserves for at least a year (there and back), which means it would have to be huge even if only a couple of people were sent. Designers might come up with &uot;sails&uot; that would utilize the solar wind, but that would be experimental.

In addition to the fuel requirements, the ship would have to be stocked with everything the human crew would require for the next year or more, including water and air. The Martian atmosphere is of no help replenishing air reserves and though Mars might have water, mission planners would not be able to count on its use. Even if no life were detected on Mars, it just wouldn’t be a good idea to have people drinking Martian water. You don’t know where that stuff’s been!

If all this isn’t daunting enough, whether human beings can successfully take a yearlong mission in interplanetary space is not yet known. Come to think, it won’t be known until the first Martian expedition. The problems are radiation and low gravity. Even with radiation shielding, the Martian explorers would get extremely high doses of radiation that would no doubt cause problems in future years, but which might even make completing the mission problematic. Of more immediate concern is the effect low gravity takes on the body. After six months in nearly zero gravity, would our explorers even be able to walk on Mars in their space suits? They would probably need a rover and they would not be able to do very much. Basically, you’d be landing sick and crippled men or women on a hostile, deadly and alien surface.

Sound like a challenge? You bet it is.

After all the potential problems I’ve just listed, you might come away thinking I’m against these two ambitious proposals. But I’m not. I’m all for it. It’s about the only thing Bush has done over the past two years I agree with.

I know that with huge budget deficits already bleeding the wallets of our children and grandchildren that this might seem crazy, but putting money into space exploration is not throwing it into a black hole. Humanity will reap the benefits of the billions spent on research and develop as the world’s best minds try to devise new ways to get things done.

I don’t think we’d be where we are now technologically if not for the space program of the 1960s and ’70s. Yes, some things were invented or discovered that we use, but the main technological benefit of the push to the Moon was to advance everything much faster than it would have happened otherwise. Nothing drives technological evolution faster that programs like Mercury, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. The only thing that might come close is weapons development, which has gotten out of hand. We don’t need new ways to destroy things; we need new ways to advance our potential.

But even the technological benefits of space exploration take a back seat to more esoteric benefits, such as a basic drive in humanity to explore, discover, and expand. There is an unexplored frontier out there. We haven’t been there and we can’t get there without sacrificing some money and even some lives to get out there. I think the drive to explore is more powerful than any of us realize. I’m fairly content to sit home and read, but that doesn’t mean the need doesn’t exist in me. I think it’s less individualistic than the need for food, for example, but falls into the social needs category – right in there with the need for company and community.

Some individuals have little need for community, but most people do need it to maintain sanity. The need to explore, even if that exploration is vicarious, has the same effect on the social fabric. Fulfilling the need goes mostly unnoticed, but the frustration of this basic human need is, in my opinion, a destructive force that leads to increased violence, inhumanity and war.

We need to get out there. It will advance our civilization technologically and satisfy a need most of us don’t even realize we have.

But we also need to explore space to see if it is possible to go further. We’ll never know if we can colonize other planets unless we get out there and see how conditions are. The universe is a dangerous place, even here on Earth. At least two mass extinctions are now attributed to meteor strikes on Earth. If one happens now, we would probably become extinct and all that we have accomplished wiped away as if none of us ever existed.

We’ve got to colonize other worlds so that we have some assurance that humanity will continue to evolve and grow and reach its potential. I think we’re a long way from reaching our potential. I think God has more in mind for us than just lounging around on Planet Earth. There is a huge universe out there and we haven’t even begun to see what wonders have been created for us to marvel at.

It’s time we go find out what’s out there.