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Manned Missions to Mars Aren't Just Sci-Fi

Posted by Louis D. Friedman

24-08-2012 18:09 CDT

Topics: Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts, human spaceflight, Mars

As the robot Curiosity touched down on Mars, the event was accessed via Internet by millions worldwide, witnessed by tens of thousands at live events, and highlighted in the media for days. I hope that politicians and bureaucrats got the message: Space exploration is not just valuable to scientists; it is also popular with the public who pays taxes. And why not? The exploration of Mars is not only a search for signs of alien life. It is an exploration of the human future.

Mars is the only world accessible to us beyond Earth that was once and again may be habitable. It is the laboratory in which the evolution of the human species will be tested and ultimately determined. In its atmosphere, on its surface, and through its water, we seek answers and insights about the nature, origin and evolution of life, particularly of ourselves. Contemplating Mars, we wonder: Are we alone in the universe? Where will our future lie?

In the current space program, however, it is chic to consider Mars as only one of many destinations. After all, there are six other planets, many moons and even more asteroids in our solar system, and some people dream of travel to other stars, and their planets and moons. We have been exploring robotically and remotely investigating as many other worlds as possible, and we want to continue. But for humans, we've only touched down briefly on the moon, and Mars is the only place we might repeat that triumph. Traveling to other worlds — for example, to hellishly hot Venus, or the far, cold and radiation-battered environs of Jupiter — is beyond our ability, at least for now, and I argue, forever!

Mars is not just the next or most accessible human destination, it is the ultimate one. Science-fiction literature abounds with human voyages through and beyond the solar system. But the ideas for such voyages have changed little over the past 50 years. They imagine exotic, unobtainable propulsion systems, or undefined warp drives, freezing people to wake them up in tens of thousands of years, or spaceships with anti-gravity drives supporting generations of travelers among the stars. Those ideas haven't improved or become any more realistic. Neither has real, obtainable human spaceflight technology. The life-support systems we will use for human flight over the next few decades are remarkably the same as those we used in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era, and they will make use of capsules and heavy rockets much like those of the 1960s.

Contrast that with how far robotic spacecraft have evolved, and how information technologies have simply transformed. Any cellphone has more computing power than the earliest planetary probes or the Apollo spacecraft. Electronics and sensors keep getting smaller, while information processing and communications capabilities get greater. Small spacecraft have evolved from micro-spacecraft (10-100 kg), to nano-spacecraft (1-10kg), to pico-spacecraft (under 1 kg), and the limits are not yet known. Except for the speed of light, we don't yet know the limits for communication data rates and for information processing speed and capacity. The combined exponential reduction of electronics size and increases in information processing capabilities give us a "Moore's Law" for increasing robotics technology capability, whereas the technology predictions for transporting human spaceflight actually seem to give us an inverse Moore's Law, describing a rate of decreasing capability and longer time-scales.

Extrapolating from current robotic developments, we will have super-fast, ultra-light spacecraft propelled by lightsails that will enable interstellar travel with the human brain, but not the body. The human brain will be integrated with that of the spacecraft, utilizing advances even more profound than those in the physical and electronic technologies. Combining genetic, biological and nano-technologies in future payloads with advances in information processing, we will extend human presence into worlds much farther and faster than we now imagine. This is how humans will explore beyond Mars.

By the time human spaceflight technology is theoretically capable of journeys beyond Mars, humans in modern space systems will be virtual explorers interacting with the environments of distant worlds, but without the baggage of physical transportation or presence. This is already happening on Earth. More astronomy is now done by astronomers sitting in their offices and homes than by trooping to mountaintops to sit at a telescope. Data reach the virtual observer just milliseconds later than it would if he or she were on the mountain. An even starker example: Modern warfare, conducted more and more by telerobotics, is leaving the human warriors safe at home, as with U.S. drones in Asia and Africa.

If humans will explore the vastness of space beyond Mars virtually, why won't it be that way with Mars? Why won't humans give up exploring beyond Earth altogether? There are two simple reasons: Humankind will not leave all its eggs in one basket, where they are susceptible to extinction by asteroid impact, disease, war or environmental catastrophe. And Mars is accessible — less than one year's travel time — and with a relative abundance of water, oxygen and useful minerals within reach of humans. There's nothing else like it within billions and billions of miles.

Human travel to Mars is inevitable. Human journeys beyond Mars will be virtual. This makes Mars the ultimate destination for humans, in body at least. Once we realize that, the context of robotic missions like Spirit, Opportunity and, now, Curiosity changes. President Obama may actually understand this; he is the first president to announce that human expeditions to Mars (he said by the mid-2030s) is the goal of America's space program. The president may understand it, but his administration doesn't. It has cut out most future Mars plans in NASA. That disconnect needs fixing.

This article was originally printed in USA Today and reprinted here with permission of the author.

See other posts from August 2012


Or read more blog entries about: Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts, human spaceflight, Mars


Leonidas: 08/24/2012 07:33 CDT

I have to respectfully disagree on the notion that beyond-Mars destinations will be forever unaccesible to human beings. It's something that may happen 3 or 4 centuries from now, but whatever seems imposibble today, maybe the possibility of tomorrow, just like a human trip to Mars is fully achievable today, and the already achieved voyage to the Moon was beyond imagination 4 centuries ago. And yes, Mars is the ultimate destination for today and probably for the whole of the 21st century. And it's where humanity's future lies.

Arbitrary: 08/25/2012 05:55 CDT

Not SciFi, but pure waste. Sending humans to Mars is a horribly bad idea, at least during the nest couple of centuries. It would cost more than a hundered landers, rovers and orbiters. Nothing would destroy science about Mars, as efficiently as sending a man there. Just look how Apollo completely killed the space race. Billion dollar toilets and men sleeping 1/3 of the time. Then slowly clumsily collecting a rock or two. Robots are far more efficient and only cost a fraction. How could Mars ever become inhabited? It has practically no atmosphere or magnetic field to ever keep one, its chemistry and radiation is lethal to human beings. Would be much easier to colonize the Antarctic. But no one suggests that because it is so very hostile. Mars is a thousand times worse. And transportation costs are prohibitive to any sensible activity. Colonizing Mars is simply the most stupid idea ever! Completely insane, unreal and lacking any hint of intelligent notion. I advocate the complete opposite, to do science instead of wasting everything we have on megalomaniac political propaganda projects. Also, talking about "humanity" as one collective being, is insane. It is the individual who has knowledge and performs actions. The collective is just a theoretical abstraction, it doesn't really exist or do anything, you know. Leonidas: When "we" start traveling interstellar, "we" will no longer be recognized as human being. We will have modified "ourselves" genetically by then.

themechanicalman: 08/25/2012 02:02 CDT

Mars will be colonized as will the rest of the solar system, eventually every significant planet and moon, and the "spacers" that go out to space to do so will become a myriad of new human races.

Michael: 08/25/2012 05:28 CDT

I agree with this editorial, and that Mars is the ultimate destination for humans as we now know them. Obama's goal of humans in the Mars system by the 2030s is a step in the right direction for NASA policy, but it should be taken even further: humans on the *surface* of Mars by the 2030s. Hopefully with the success of Curiosity the powers that be will realize that NASA is at an inflection point in its history and make the Mars goal much more clear and well-defined. And give it a substantial budget increase, of course.

Arbitrary: 08/26/2012 12:28 CDT

Sorry for breaking the news, but the US government is bankrupt! The warfare and welfare state of the recent decade has consumed everything, eliminated much industry and indebted future generations. NASA will by necessity be cut away almost completely in the coming years. Dreams of government funded men on Mars, is unreal. Fortunately, private and foreign investments in space technology is getting ahead. But a putting a man on Mars is still a silly and pointless idea.

Zorbonian: 08/26/2012 11:16 CDT

@Arbitrary, the U.S. GNP (gross national product) is over $15 TRILLION! To put that in perspective, the 2nd closest in GNP is China at $6.6 Trillion. China recently surpassed Japan, and I have no idea why since the products are just not there yet in terms of quality -- pretty junky stuff that I try not to buy (until the quality gets up there), and Japan is 3rd at almost $5.8 trillion. The U.S. government had a surplus during the late 90s under Clinton when the rich were taxed at the rate that they should be taxed at. So sorry, but I tend to disagree with that comment: the U.S. government is far from bankrupt -- but the Republican party seems to be doing all they can to bankrupt it while they strive to achieve their goal of continuing to lower taxes for the rich while they are selling the poor and middle class on trickle down economics, and having the middle class pay even more in taxes. Putting a person on Mars is silly, but putting a colony on Mars is not. It is a pretty good idea, and will encourage more technological developments and inventiveness that will ultimately benefit all of us.

Zorbonian: 08/27/2012 12:01 CDT

@Arbitrary, it is the untempered greed of our elected officials that is keeping us from doing even greater things.

Torbjörn Larsson, OM: 08/28/2012 11:56 CDT

It is difficult to take this editorial serious. The proposal of a "human brain [that] will be integrated with that of the spacecraft" is unethical. Maybe we will explore further out later, the resources are certainly there (bodies for habitats, volatiles for biospheres and rockets, fissiles for energy). The Moon is an important scientific target and Mars as well, so we can start there. @ Arbitrary: A temporary terraforming of Mars for ~ 1 billion year (the atmosphere escape time without magnetic field) has been claimed to be within reach. That could extend biosphere lifetime in the system, because our own atmosphere is heating up from the aging sun, The CO2 will be leached out of the atmosphere by increased erosion, and people claim 0.2 - 1.5 billion years of vegetation. As for your take on society it seems myopic. History isn't just the history of individuals, we have observably societies and their cultures as well. As for evolution, we have never stopped evolving and in fact measurements says the large population size has accelerated the process. (Smaller fitness differences can be picked up and fixed.) Mars and Earth can be kept homogeneous, I hear it is enough with ~ 1 crossbreeding event/generation to keep a population together regardless of its size. When we get to the borders of the system these mixings will start to break down due to the travel times.

Wil: 08/28/2012 01:07 CDT

Thank you for your wonderful article Dr. Friedman. I have often imagined living on Mars. Sure it would be tough, and there would be problems, some possibly life-threatening. But what a wonderful opportunity to create solutions! I was lucky enough to be alive to see the first steps. I have no doubt we will explore and colonize Mars one day. Oh how wonderful tomorrow will be!

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