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Headshot of Louis Friedman

Crazy Far

Posted by Louis D. Friedman

14-01-2013 14:37 CST

Topics: personal stories, human spaceflight, Future Mission Concepts, Mars

“‘It’s Mars or nowhere,’ says Louis Friedman, an astronautics engineer and one of the founders of The Planetary Society…” This is me being quoted in the current issue of the National Geographic (Jan 2013). “Crazy Far” is the title.

It is not a misquote, but it is a misunderstood quote (which I tried to explain in a long interview with the author – an interview reduced to that one sentence). In the sentences before and after the author interprets this to mean “eternal confinement to two small planets in a vast galaxy.” My view of the future extension of human presence in our galaxy (and perhaps universe) is not a negative one about not going, but a hopeful one about the way we go – faster than anyone now imagines.

I discussed the way in an article in The Planetary Report (March 2012): tiny nano-spacecraft (or smaller) incorporating nano-technology, cognitive information processing and bio-genetic technologies in their payloads to permit human bodies on Earth and Mars to be virtually present on many newly discovered worlds beyond our solar system. Equip these spacecraft with solar sail propulsion and you can exit the solar system at very fast speeds; and if you replace with sunlight with laser light (from solar powered laser stations in our solar system) you can keep increasing the speed over interstellar distances – enabling these instrumented probes to get to interstellar destinations and send back to data within a single lifetime. Human exploration will be carried out by millions of us, not just a few emissaries whose experience is given to us vicariously.

Sunset on Mars

NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M

Sunset on Mars
On May 19th, 2005, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars.

The ideas in the National Geographic article are surprisingly old-fashioned, not much different than those we might have read a half-century ago: for example, fusion propulsion or anti-matter annihilation, and even (according to the National Geographic caption on a gorgeous 3-page art piece) “thousands of colonists on an interstellar Mayflower on a journey lasting generations.” Not only could they have been written in the 1950s; they were. Leslie Shepherd, the Technical Director of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), wrote about such ideas in 1952 in the organization’s Journal. Even robotic missions were enormous: the great Daedalus project of the BIS was a serious study in the mid-1970s based on fusion spacecraft propulsion with Helium-3 fuel (both not yet invented) and a 4000 ton spacecraft to fly a unmanned flyby of Barnard’s star in 50 years.

In addition to the ideas about interstellar flight not changing much in the past 50 years, neither has the technology for human space flight. The requirements and the technology for life support are about the same now as they were for Yuri Gagarin. The capsules are about the same, except bigger. Elon Musk’s innovative new Dragon capsule is reminiscent of Apollo – showing how little the requirements for human space travel have changed. In 50 years of space flight our concepts for human space travel to the Moon or Mars have not changed. Contrast that with the advances in electronics, communications, nanotechnology, information processing, computers and bio-genetics for robotic spacecraft. And the evolution of these technologies is just beginning! In a few years we may be able to spray or print a fully functional spacecraft instrumented sufficiently to beam back holograms for other worlds onto gossamer films or even wires. Those will make the first interstellar probes. And by that time (I think less than 100 years) we humans will be completely adapted to participation in virtual exploration and not feeling left out as we fly into the atmospheres and oceans of other Earth-like planets interacting in some new way with whatever is there (biological or chemical).

If I really think that virtual exploration is the future of human exploration why then do I still say humans to Mars? I do worry that our progress in human space flight is so slow and hidebound that maybe there too we will end up satisfied with virtual. I call this a space race: of human desire for real world exploration vs human acceptance of the virtual world – or merely of humans versus robots. But, Mars is so close and relatively easy to reach, so comparatively hospitable to life (compared to any other planet we know of) and the Earth has so many grave dangers, that I think we will soon have humans living there if for no other reason than as a back-up location for the human species: a place to insure our survival. Even thought the robots may have passed us in abilities for distant world exploration, the humans (I hope) will still make the race to Mars. That is within reach now and so I believe that even despite the inefficiency of heavy spacecraft carrying life support systems, the drive for survival, adventure and discovery will still take us there. Beyond that (even to the alluring Europa deep in the radiation belt of Jupiter) too many decades are required and with so much time the nano-technologies will have evolved and we’ll be happily exploring the oceans of our solar system’s water worlds – just not with a physical presence.

To me that is exciting, optimistic and positive for extending the human presence everywhere. And, it is just the opposite of any negative implication about the statement, “Mars or nowhere.” I am not giving up on interstellar travel, I am trying to enable it. Think small, that’s the way I see it.

See other posts from January 2013


Or read more blog entries about: personal stories, human spaceflight, Future Mission Concepts, Mars


Paulo: 01/14/2013 04:54 CST

Though TPS always had its sights on Mars, I've always been of the opinion that the Moon, close by and low gravity, could become a platform of choice to further our presence in the Solar System. It also seemed to me that a robust presence in space would need commercial ventures being carried up there (though when President Obama took that decision in 2010, I was scared, feeling it was too soon, we weren't ready). We need human industry solidly in multiple points of the Solar System and an incremental approach to get to that. The vision of orbiting astronauts commanding a plethora of surface probes, mapping geology and topography, cuts costs in a major way, for the time being postponing actual landing. It is even more exciting that NASA is considering a permanent station at L2, without any major bump in its current budget, so it is reported. Like you, I am really pretty excited. The nay-sayers will scoff but there's an overarching realization to this: space is about us, humans; knowledge is about us, humans. Collect as much data from the surface of Pluto as you like and in every conceivable way, but if it does not impact our understanding, find some indirect usefulness, broaden the assessment of it is like to be human, it will all be collected in a dusty data drive in the basement of a museum, deemed not interesting enough to see the brightly lit curious eyes of children visitors, the dreamers of tomorrow.

Paul Wren: 01/14/2013 04:59 CST

I agree with Paulo regarding the Moon as an even more obvious place that is close, easy to reach, and no less hospitable than Mars. Mars has captured our imaginations, yet it has also blinded us to other possibilities. The clouds of Venus, at ~50km altitude, provide by far the most Earth-like environment in the Solar System (outside of Earth, of course), and aerostat outposts in the Venus clouds would be safer than surface outposts on Mars. Venus is easier to get to, too. There is a long list of answers to "Why Venus?", better left for elsewhere.

Bob Ware: 01/15/2013 09:58 CST

I'm outside to you. I still support Martian colonization first over Luna. Then Luna. Mars is easier in terms of consumables. Mars has adequate volumes of water for example, Luna does not. Unlike Venus, Mars does not have a hostile acidic atmosphere and super fast wind speeds. The list continues but I will not. As for Louis Friedmans' view point ... the technology is here now. Let's employ it. Actually we are trying to do so at this point. We just need an LV (Launch Vehicle). If we can prove solar sailing actually can work we're good to go. (Note: the other countries that have solar sailing S/C - Spacecraft - have obtained their initial momentum from other propulsion sources first). The TPS plan is to park in roughly an 800 mile orbit (I believe) then fly outward on solar wind from there. If this works then Flight Test 2 and Flight Test 3 which would also include a solar monitoring mission. If all are successful I would then like OF 1 (Operational Flight 1) or Flight Test 4 to fly past Pluto and return so that velocity parameters and flight software inclusive of breaking procedures can be tested. Acquired velocity data will be learned then velocity wise we can approximate a missions flight time. With the breaking we could consider returning the SC to launch point. With A/I if the A/I sees a hostile alien presence it can core dump so no data could be recovered. Sure the language most likely could not be decoded but on an initial contact such as that without human assessment it is better to purge than not to purge. I know I dream big but keep in mind the military is seriously studying this and they think it can be done in 100 years, so let's get going and do it 90 years before them! The private sector versus the Governments race is on! I am a Charter Member since 12/1979 and I have seen just how far TPS has helped the world come in space exploration and cooperation. If not for the TPS effort we would not be here today where we are, including the rover technology on MER and Solar Sailing for example.

Paulo (de Lima Monteiro): 01/16/2013 06:53 CST

It seems to me you're still thinking in one out shots, the Mars footprint, the Moon landing, 30 years of service of the ultimate truck, the Shuttle. [BTW, Venus is prime estate for terraforming. Drop bioengineered carbon-to-oxygen lifeforms and wait a few millennia.] Instead look out for a diverse multipart presence, deployed in easy to upgrade systems, carrying and justifying complex tasks supervised by humans. Put the next major league landmark at this: we want our presence in space to be sophisticated and resilient enough that self-sufficiency will be at hand should a major catastrophic event occur on Earth. Call it the Life Insurance for Humans. Do not put it in the framework of a single mission, but as the infrastructure for vibrant and multifaceted activity. Govs will play a part, and so will private companies. How can we create a network of interwoven hardware, useful for many purposes, not pinned down by a given technology (like it happened with the Shuttle)? Don't just think on the tip of the nail; ask how to develop a hammer.

Bob Ware: 01/18/2013 03:36 CST

Paulo - Hi. I'm not sure if your referencing my post. If so, I didn't mean to have mislead anyone on my view point. It is not winner take all and all activity in space is to be a building block for human expansion to live in space as a function of specie survival. in the competitive send that I stated it would be insanity proven if the winner tried to take all. Disposable space projects are a thing of the past which have no future in todays environment. Hopefully that mentality is over. Competition can bring out the best to help achieve a goal. All parties results regardless of who came in first need to be blended together for a robust exploration and colonization goal. It sounds like you prefer Luna first and I prefer Mars first. That's preference and nothing more. If the majority want Luna first then it will be Luna first. If we don't agree to do something we'll never get there. I will not try to stop Luna first because if I succeed then we'll never get there and I do not want that. I want to get there together for everyones sake. Yes the orbiter was a wasted project. Originally it had strap-on potential and powered flight goals. they were not developed. With the strap-ons Lunar missions were a possiblity. That though became an undeveloped dream. That type of project is really a waste. Engineering wise we learned a lot but we could have learned that with 1 orbiter and the other never built Orbiters money spent on other space projects. I'm sorry for the misleading.

Paulo (de Lima Monteiro): 01/18/2013 07:11 CST

Thanks for the clarification Bob. I mentioned Shuttle technology in the context of systems developed in the 1970s that forced outdated spare parts to continue production, even though no one used them anymore. The ferrite memory components for instance. More recently the Navy, to upgrade the Hornet, concluded that they already had a very good shell, so the Super Hornet simply upgraded mostly the avionics. It surprises me for instance that there is no private company out there, to repair and upgrade satellites, something I would think there is a market for. I was trying to address what results from cost concerns. A lunar base, a Mars landing will require budgets we will not have for decades (just consider the debt to China). Let me give you three links, you may or may not have read: this ought to intensify all sorts of activity ; even without costly landings, humans may become very busy ; but something that gets me really excited right there where it says "NASA officials think they can pull off such manned missions without busting their budget." The more activity goes on in space, the more opportunities will open to further that activity. Salut.

Bob Ware: 01/18/2013 07:25 CST

Paulo - Thanks for the links. I'll get to them. As I recall the original Orbiter (shuttle) plan it was far better than what we ended up with. Originally APOLLO was to have been 40 missions (the 1965 goal) the NASA Rep. explained to my class and ending in colonization missions starting with mining operations. Public attitude then demanded an end to APOLLO at 20, then 17 flights. The Orbiter came next. Thus we are where we are today. Basically starting over. Thanks again for the links. I will look at them and I hope others will do so.

Bob Ware: 01/18/2013 08:12 CST

Paulo - I just looked at the article you mentioned. I did not know that NASA was this far committed to an L-2 mission which would support/conduct Lunar Rover missions via the Orion Spacecraft (S/C). Since Obama was reelected this seems to be NASA's future. Apparently Romney wanted to change this plan to something else.

Bob Ware: 01/18/2013 08:21 CST

The "...Audacious..." article states that the impossible dream of private/commercial space companies is basically a reality and it is not so insane that some of them cannot succeed. Good points and proven truths. Also: SpaceX and their Heavy Lifter should be able to flight test this year (2013) and they do have the LV slated on their manifest to Flight Test this year.

Bob Ware: 01/18/2013 08:52 CST

The telerobotics aretile is a good approach since funding is flat and NASA apparently has no intention of colonizing Mars until Orion gets proven out and more funding becomes available. Telerobotic missions to other planets appears to be the fiscally sound approach that NASA is going to take now with Orion bringing crews close enough (within design limits) to telerobotically conduct missions. The Terra-Luna L2 point for lunar missions from an Orion S/C is an example. The BEAM habitat (see Jason Davis' article on "manned spaceflight, the Modules update) for the specs on this piece of new hardware. This is an idea NASA had but they sold it off to a private company. This company made it work and that 1st Flight Test is coming up very soon. If Orion could get such a module that it could dock to then that would be an added bonus to a Terra-Luna L2 mission. These 3 links all compliment each other and they clearly show where NASA is actually headed... down the right track. The micro picture is bleak but on the macro picture is quite a step in the right bound permanently as a species. Wen the budget is in line then astronauted missions to surfaces as a global venture would be financially doable. Socially the Star trek concept would be one giant step closer. I like that! Personally I still prefer Mars first and i always will. This approach regardless of where it starts (Luna now appears to be it) is a very good approach. Also in parallel Space X could easily do Mars on their own if they want to. I would like to see that succeed also. I really don't want anyone's ventures to fail.

Paulo de Lima Monteiro: 01/18/2013 09:05 CST

The "audacious" article is interesting because it shows there are people with commercial ventures in mind. A quote from the article is that maybe not all will be successful but perhaps a few will. Even if the teams do not make it to their final goals, know-how and an enlarged pool of experienced people will come from it all. Private companies and business opportunities venture into air pockets of which we only see a few now. However a robust human presence in space requires that business be carried there. Consider the telecommunications satellites industry today. The traffic and operators, from owners to users is overwhelming and it grew incrementally from opportunities explored one at a time by free markets. Ideally, we would like to empower people so that anyone would be able to try out her own space venture. Most, or many, of the ideas are of doubtful sanity? So was the PC, the Internet, the mobile phone. The important thing is that someone is trying, and we don't want the trying to ever stop. I don't expect a Obama statement very soon. The Romney angle was perhaps to deny him of anything he could use in the campaign trail. For Obama right now there are very pressing issues in domestic and foreign policy. For me however it is really very, very good that they are bouncing those ideas around. Both at NASA and in the White House. If the economy improves dramatically, maybe some feelgood announcements later in the year, or early 2014. It may also depend on the Chinese progress with their manned program. Like I said: that ideas are being considered is a good thing.

Paulo de Lima Monteiro: 01/18/2013 09:16 CST

"Live long and prosper."

Bob Ware: 01/18/2013 09:48 CST

:"Change is the essential process of all existence." Spock - "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield by Lee Cronin.

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