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Mars, One Way

written by Gerhard von Müehle on March 13, 2004 | contact me
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A Sunset on Mars
A Sunset on Mars
Credit: Kees Veenenbos
A strange mystery it is that nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity for judging all the works of his unthinking mother. Bertrand Russell

Let’s challenge the future! For the sake of human survival, let’s take a trip to Mars, and stay there! We can live off the land with care packages from home. Everything a Stay-On-Mars mission will need can be bounced across the planet protected in airbags like Spirit and Opportunity were.

Pick a site near water ice and start launching equipment and supplies. Color-coded air bags will await our astronauts like so many colored beach balls lying on the sands of Mars. The first one-way expedition can leave Earth in just a few years. One-way for now, but in 10, 20, or 30 years, tech advances will make round trips easy and feasible. The original crew may want to take a sabbatical back to the blue-green world they left a couple of decades before. Or, they may not.

Our current tentative man-in-space steps seem gutless, timid and uninspiring. Has America lost its nerve? Are we a nation of spineless wimps? I’ll go to Mars on a one-way trip. Who wants to join me? I’ll bet millions of bright, thoughtful people would give their lives to join the adventure. To have finally come to the point where we begin to understand our place in this grand realm but fail to embrace what it offers with wholehearted enthusiasm, risks and all, is a coward’s choice. Where are the voices of hope, of courage? The prodding of Carl Sagan is sorely missed. Let’s hear Chet Raymo, Tim Ferris, Ray Bradbury, Greg Benford, Art Clarke and others, pick up the beat! Let them prod the political cowards with their sharp eloquence, wit, and foresight. Make the politicians see the folly of timidity and the stultifying, tight-fisted grip of their bureaucracy. You’ve got a ‘bean counter’ running NASA for crying out loud!

‘Tis time New hopes should animate the world, New light should dawn from new revealings To a race weighed down so long... Robert Browning

I’m not trying to pile on NASA. Its successes are more than impressive. They are astounding, marvelous! The Apollo Moon landings were a truly superlative achievement. And the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the awesome grandeur of the realm. But how in the world can we justify a ‘bean counter’ instead of a scientist in charge of the world’s premiere space agency? We have a President to thank for that disappointment plus a lobbyist besotted Congress that not only didn’t challenge his decision, but also actually supported it! The result is that the finest scientific instrument ever put into space, Hubble, is about to be abandoned.

New dictates from the nation’s political headquarters are ordering us to go back to the Moon. As the first step to Mars we’re told. “Been there, done that.” We’ve been sold that song before and what happened? Nothing. Nada. We’re still playing with a very expensive erector set in low Earth orbit and driving remote control toys a few meters across the sandy, cold wastes of the Red Planet.

Too soon from the cave too far from the stars. We must ignore the whispers from the cave which say, ‘stay.’ We must listen to the stars that say ‘come’. Ray Bradbury

Sending Saturn V rockets to the junkyard, along with their plans, tools and dies, ensured that we cannot now go to the Moon, much less Mars. Payloads of 240,000 pounds are not currently possible. The Shuttle can only put up 60,000 pounds and our biggest rockets only 40,000 pounds. The Shuttle’s not flying, Hubble’s abandoned, and the Space Station is in maintenance mode.

NASA’s inability to focus its priorities would be laughable if not so pathetic and dangerous. Pathetic because a feckless President and Congress cannot, or will not, take the larger view - a sense of the realm, the splendor in which humanity lives. Dangerous because we can no longer hunker down in churches and believe a benevolent deity will take care of us. We now know the Solar System is a dangerous place. Comets and asteroids by the millions play Russian roulette with the Earth. Several very close encounters in the last few years should give us pause to reflect on NASA’s priorities.

The cloud of near-earth asteroids through which the earth plows may constitute a modern Camarine Marsh. Carl Sagan

Mass extinctions have reset evolution’s clock many times. I’m sure humanity isn’t yet ready to see if insects will be the ultimate winners, that the only trace of our existence will be our ruins on Earth, a few scrap heaps on the Moon and Mars and lifeless Pioneers and Voyagers wandering the Milky Way’s dust-ridden rim.

Let’s take a look at NASA priorities. There are only two that matter right now.

1) Protect the Earth from a catastrophic collision with space debris.

2) Move our DNA eggs and human knowledge off world in case we botch priority No. 1.

How is the first priority accomplished? Simple, find the threatening objects and develop deep space launchers to destroy or alter an impactor’s trajectory. This will be a long-term project because of the millions of comets in the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, not to mention the thousands of asteroids perilously wandering about. We have the technology to find the potential threats, but have not made it the priority it deserves.

The failure of the world’s space agencies to conduct a Spaceguard survey is incomprehensible and reprehensible. Steven Ostr

At current efforts it will be years before a survey of all kilometer sized or larger Earth-crossers is completed. And what about little ones, like Tunguska that flattened 2,000 square kilometers of forest in Siberia in 1907? Or fragment ‘G’ of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 which left an impact scar on Jupiter larger than the Earth and sent a fireball 2,000 miles above the planet’s clouds! Oops! That’s one we saw. That one should have shaken us out of our slumber. But it didn’t.

No matter what your brand of mathematics may be, the threat of a collision with a large asteroid or comet nucleus is real and of a magnitude that dwarfs threats of other natural cataclysms such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, or tsunamis. However destructive those common natural catastrophes may seem, their forces pale with the realization that a collision with an NEO would have the potential of ending civilization, perhaps in an hour or less. Nickolai Vasiliev

Deep space rockets need to be developed with the power to get to Neptune or Pluto’s orbit in weeks to months, not years – years will be too late! We have no such launch vehicles now and it will take time to develop the relevant technologies. In the interim, a Mars base would serve to save our eggs, and if I may say so, our bacon as well. Is it not our first priority to save ourselves, our civilization, cultures, and kindred fauna and flora? That’s a priority. That’s the priority. If we let one of these dark, tumbling, mountain-sized rocks catch us sleeping, nothing of our civilization will survive. It’s back to the Stone Age as NASA itself admits. Space Shuttles and Space Stations won’t matter, politicians will become irrelevant and evolution’s clock will be reset once more. Humanity probably won’t be in the picture next time. Replay the film and we will have been edited out of life’s run.

Upon impact, the larger pieces of Shoemaker-Levy blew fireballs thousands of kilometers high into Jupiter’s atmosphere…When Fragment G collided with the King of Planets two days after the first impact, the flash was so bright that infrared scopes all over Earth were momentarily fried. The scar left by Fragment G was larger than Earth itself, and the explosive energy released was the equivalent of a Hiroshima-sized nuclear bomb exploding every second for 13 years. Tom Bissell

Speaking of space stations, the International Space Station is a low orbit White Elephant, patently useless in its current configuration. The Europeans are smart enough to want out, but Americans have a penchant for throwing good money after bad. Surprise! Early on, in the planning phases of the space station, scientists like Freeman Dyson, Carl Sagan and many, many others opposed the ISS on grounds that the bang for the buck just wasn’t there. And they were right. The up to $100 billion cost of the station has become what Freeman Dyson described as :a welfare program for the American and Russian aerospace industries, driven by mundane politics rather than by visions of cosmic connections." The continuing costs of the ISS could have put a substantial self-sustaining manned (and womaned!) colony on Mars, or the Moon. At least some of our eggs would have been put in a second basket improving the odds of mankind’s long-term survival. Our bacon could have been saved.

The impulse to push further, to live longer, to journey farther – and to leave messages for those who follow us, when we inevitably falter and fall – these will perhaps be our most enduring features. Gregory Benford

"We’ve got problems to solve right here on Earth, before we go traipsing off into space!" is the ignorant refrain of the unenlightened. The US is spending almost $4 billion a month trying to subdue an Iraqi Islamic culture that wants nothing to do with an arrogant white Christian world. We give huge tax breaks, up to $100,000, so that the truly selfish can drive super polluting, energy wasting, dangerous, monster SUVs. We spend billions building weapons systems that even the military doesn’t want! And NASA? Well, “they don’t need the money; we’ve got other problems to solve right here on Earth.” Like some scared child in the dark, we’re trying to face forward while walking backward. We’re upside down saying we’re looking up. Some day we’ll be forced to look up, but by then it may be too late. The new dinosaurs on the block are as ignorant of their fate as were the old dinosaurs. Extinction is not reserved for others. Our name is on the list. Comet SL-9 proved that beyond a doubt.

Saving the Earth and enlivening the universe are not questions of engineering, or physics, or even economics; they are matters of will power. We have the power. Now we must find the will. Marshall Savage

Mars! Mars! Mars! We have to go! Is there risk? You bet! Is it worth it? You bet!!! We can minimize risk. Our technology is working wonders everyday. But where will America’s ‘Tin Man’ government find the courage and heart to set the nation’s course in space exploration? Mankind has everything to gain, nothing to lose in making the attempt, not as it is now so tentatively done, but with a purposeful, powerful boldness of a determined and intelligent species. You would think America would relish going to Mars. He’s the God of War after all.

To an idea and those who pursue it: Mars in our time. Gregory Benford

Let’s shuffle the deck and play the cards! Space is a number’s puzzle and we’re gambling with the only sentient outpost we know of. Celestial mechanics will eventually win the game of chance we’re playing. SL-9’s nasty little roulette ball dramatically pointed that out. It could have landed on No. 3 of the Solar System’s roulette wheel instead of No. 5. There’s a rock out here with our name on it. If we don’t sacrifice a little now to get to Mars, we’re going to be sacrificed in some future cosmic termination event. The dinosaurs didn’t know to care. We seem not to care to know!

The challenge of the great spaces between the worlds is a stupendous one; but if we fail to meet it, the story of our race will be drawing to its close. Humanity will have turned its back upon the still-untrodden heights and will be descending again the long slope that stretches, across a thousand million years of time, down to the shores of the primeval sea. Arthur C. Clarke

We’re such a godly nation that we’re protected from harm, right? Right! If God allows, and He must, since He’s omniscient and omnipotent, the killing of thousands by earthquakes, in floods, and by storms every year, what do you think the chances are He’s going to run into left field and catch one to save our sorry butts? He tried to save us once with His only begotten Son, remember? I assume God has a long memory. More likely, if you know and believe in Biblical prophecy, He’d just as soon zap us as save us! Your ancestors may be in Heaven, but Hell is right here on Earth. The sexually alluring, but rib-challenged Eve tempted Man to take a risk. His big bite out of the Forbidden Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge gives us no choice now but to continue the quest. We were thrown out of Paradise, remember.

We humans once imagined that we were at the center of it all. Science has let the wind out of that vain claim. Cosmic maps show that we live closer to the edge than to the center of our galaxy, and genetic maps show us occupying the tip of one branch of the shrub of life. We’re not at the center of the Universe; we’re not at the top of the tree. Timothy Ferris

What’s it going to take, a Chinese landing on the Moon to snap us out of our lethargy, as did Sputnik? Why is politics driving our exploration of the Universe anyway? Why can’t we rise above our planetary border squabbles, our religious bloodletting, and the infantile baser instincts? Setting priorities is not what we’re about unless forced to it. We live in a bureaucracy after all, a government bureaucracy at that!

There is a tendency for us to flee from the wild silence and wild dark, to pack up our gods and hunker down behind city walls, to turn the gods into idols, to kowtow before them and approach their precincts only in the official robes of office. And when we are in the temples, then who will hear the voice crying in the wilderness? Who will hear the reed shaken by the wind? Who will watch the galaxy rise above the eastern hedge and see a river infinitely deep and crystal clear, a river flowing from the spring that is creation to the ocean that is time. Chet Raymo

"Man is god in the chrysalis." The chrysalis is our lack of boldness. Regrettably, we are constrained by timidity. Let’s support NASA to raise its glorious standard on the front lines of exploration - under a blue sky and the starry void!

Let Man Burst Forth, With Fire In His Light, And Spread Himself, Into The Far-Flung Night! von Müehle

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