Manned Mars expedition necessary and feasible
Published: Monday, September 10, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 10, 2012 23:09
Early in the morning on Monday, Aug. 6, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed safely on the surface of Mars. It dominated news headlines and Facebook news feeds for a few days, producing a variety of opinions – some excited about this huge leap forward in space exploration, some criticizing the cost of the program, others amazed at our first Mars landing and still others pointing out that this is actually the fourth time we’ve landed a rover on Mars.
No matter their starting points, these conversations almost always turned to the question of if and when we should send humans. The answer is simple – yes, and as soon as possible. A manned Mars expedition is both necessary and, surprisingly, feasible with today’s technology. President Obama has stated that he wants to have humans on Mars by the 2030s, and top NASA officials have been floating the idea of a 2033 mission for some time now.
While better than nothing, these proposals are inadequate. Setting a deadline over 20 years in the future makes it highly likely it will be pushed off even further. A 2033 mission is a possible seven presidential administrations away, leaving open many opportunities for future presidents to divert resources from the project or cancel it completely. A deadline of 2022 would make the program much more likely to succeed.
The main objection to a deadline so soon is that we do not yet have the technology, or the budget, for a manned Mars mission. Judging only from NASA’s proposals, you would be right. These plans called for a complicated system of orbital space stations that would construct gigantic spaceships reminiscent of Star Wars. More importantly, they came with a $450 billion price tag. Understandably, this made many elected officials write off the idea of sending humans to Mars any time soon.
Since that time, independent groups of experts have put together alternative plans that are not only much simpler, but much cheaper as well. For example, the “Mars Direct” plan proposed by aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin and his associates calls for spaceships to be launched directly from Earth’s surface to the surface of Mars, similar to the successful moon missions of the past. The ships would then make rocket fuel out of the Martian atmosphere, drastically decreasing the amount of fuel that would need to be brought with them from Earth. This, along with other innovations with current technology, puts its price tag in the $20-30 billion range. While not cheap, this is only about 5 percent of the cost of NASA’s proposal.
In comparison, NASA’s budget for 2013 is $17.7 billion. If the project were spread over ten years, it would only cost a maximum of $3 billion per year, a mere 17 percent of NASA’s budget. A manned mission to Mars certainly seems worth that cost.
Of course, some will say that there are better uses for that $30 billion, like helping the poor, cutting taxes or paying for education. While those are laudable goals, there are much bigger areas of the nearly $4 trillion federal budget that should be cut before space exploration.
It should also be realized that there are huge benefits to a manned Mars mission, far beyond simply planting a flag and taking some cool photos. Mars has huge sheets of water ice, and there is strong evidence of liquid water underground. Astronauts would be able to drill down and sample this liquid water for the presence of life. Finding even simple bacteria on another planet would cause a dramatic shift in all areas of human knowledge, from biology to religion.
A manned Mars mission would also pave the way for further exploration. If liquid water is discovered beneath the surface, other traits such as its 25-hour day and its atmosphere that can be used to create fuel would make it a much better candidate for a permanent base than Earth’s own moon. This would make for a great figurative and literal launch point for missions to the edge of the solar system, whether to search for life on Jupiter’s moons or to mine asteroids for rare metals.
In 1961, President Kennedy proposed that we land humans on the moon. In 1969, we did. If we decided to send humans to Mars in ten years, we could. And we should.