Two brave Americans may get the opportunity soon to be the first to attempt a piloted flyby of the planet Mars. Would you go?
You’ve almost certainly heard about this around the same time I did, but it took a few days — and a brief comment from a friend — for it to really register with me:
Dennis Tito, the millionaire who made history in 2001 by becoming the world’s first space tourist by spending eight days on the International Space Station, has announced a project that he feels will capture the imagination of the world, and re-ignite America’s pioneering spirit. The venture is to send “[t]wo professional crew members – one man, one woman” on a 501 day flight to within a scant 100 miles of the planet Mars.
In the press release from his Inspiration Mars Foundation, Tito is quoted:
“Human exploration of space is a critical catalyst for our future growth and prosperity,” [Tito] added. “This is ‘A Mission for America’ that will generate knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration. It will encourage and embolden all Americans to believe, again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, and inspire the next generation of explorers to pursue their destiny through STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education.”
Audacious? Damned straight it’s audacious!
Though officially still looking at options for the technology, a study was conducted utilizing a SpaceX Falcon series rocket and one or more uprated SpaceX Dragon capsules. (The technical but relatively short “Feasibility Analysis for a Manned Mars Free-Return Mission in 2018” [PDF link] is available from the foundation’s site).
The ideal crew, according to Taber MacCallum, member of Tito’s development team, would be a married couple past childbearing years (due to the risk of exposure to unhealthy levels of solar radiation), in excellent health, and with a high degree of technical aptitude in order to handle repairs.
Being aware of all this, it still hadn’t become real to me until I learned my co-author of Red Moon David S. Michaels (well, all right, I’m his co-author) told me that he wanted to apply for the trip, but his wife has an issue with motion sickness that precluded her even thinking about it.
The very idea of going to Mars (or really, “circum-areion space,” but still, close enough to practically touch it), is a dream that for well over a decade I held very, very dear.
Mars — an Adolescent Romance
The Mars of my childhood was a romanticized Mars, a Mars popularized by turn of the century astronomer Percival Lowell. Lowell became an ardent proponent of the idea that a Martian feature observed by some astronomers of the time, the “canals” of Mars, was evidence of intelligence life, in the form of a vast network of irrigation canals, which one could easily imagine having been engineered to sustain a desert world. Though the existence of these features was disputed even at the time and eventually fell out of favor in the astronomical community, the damage had been done. Popular culture was infected with a fascination with Mars as an apparent abode of intelligent life well into the 20th Century.
I suspect like most boy kids I went through phases of wanting to be a policeman or a fireman, but I honestly don’t remember those. What I do remember is that my earliest desire for a vocation was to be an astronaut, a desire with a level of obsessiveness that grated on my brother and parents no end.
Then, come second grade, my teacher recognized there was some kind of issue with my vision, and my growing nearsightedness sidelined me from even thinking about becoming a member of some future astronaut group and setting my sights on Mars.
The Moon was cool, but Mars … no, Mars was it.
In my early childhood the common perception of Mars was that it had an atmosphere of roughly one tenth the density of the Earth’s, and that the existence of the canals was still pretty much a “given.” My overheated imagination was fueled by Willy Ley’s and Wernher von Braun’s coffee table classic, The Exploration of Mars, lavishly illustrated by the incomparable paintings of astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell. Bonestell was tapped by film producer George Pal for many of his science fiction classics, and would return to Mars for both The Conquest of Space, and briefly in The War of the Worlds.
More than once, as a child, I had dreams of a Mars hanging in the night sky, a Mars so huge it felt as if I could literally reach out and touch it.
Between countless hours prowling the space flight sections of the libraries of my childhood, catching movies that ran the spectrum of the thoughtful to the outright cheesy, and reading a stream of hard science fiction novels and stories, I came away with a lingering vision of a Mars not unlike Lowell’s: a cold, dying world populated by eerie beings, fighting for survival with the vast network of canals feeding water from polar icecaps to carefully tended farmlands, a world dotted with megalopoli protected by sheltering transparent domes, a civilization that possibly even sent an occasional flying saucer our way to spy on us and terrify an unlucky few in the process.
Mars Just ain’t What it Used to Be
As late as 1962, the United States Air Force produced a map that reflected Lowell’s Mars in precise and striking detail, and this vision might have persisted for years more, had not the United States and the U.S.S.R. decided to take a closer look. The Soviet Union (and the Russian Federation afterwards) had miserable luck with the Red Planet, but the U.S. fared far better.
The unmanned American Mariner spacecrafts Three and Four were launched in November of 1964 with the aim of flying by the planet, sending back imagery and doing a number of scientific observations. Mariner 3 failed to free itself from its launch shroud, and was written off, but Mariner 4 was an unqualified success.
My childhood memories of Mariner 4 are vague, and fragmented. I dimly remember being aware of the launch of the spacecraft, and may have thought about it periodically over the seven and a half months it took to reach Mars , but my real memories of Mariner 4 were while sitting in the front area of my dad’s two-way radio business, watching a black and white television on a live broadcast where NASA presented the images to what must have been a small but absolutely fixated audience.
And what did we see?
Mariner 4 images, frames 5 and 6
Mariner 4 images, frames 7 and 8
We saw a desolate, cratered lifeless lump of rock in space, suddenly and irrevocably characterized by images that might as well have been made of the Moon. (These images were originally rendered in black and white, which reinforced the resemblance.) We later learned the other instrumentation and experiments performed by the craft determined that the atmosphere was so thin (only about 100th as thin as the Earth’s) that liquid water couldn’t even exist on the surface, that water ice that reached melting point would “sublimate” (go directly to water vapor).
No canals, no glassy-domed cities.
And no damned Martians.
Oh, I’m sure I was still fascinated with Mars and the idea of going there, but I think deep down inside, in a place I probably didn’t have the emotional depth to even recognize, a little piece of my childhood died, because Mars had let me down.
And I Think It’s Gonna Be a Long, Long Time
Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact it’s cold as hell
And there’s no one there to raise them if you did
“Rocket Man” ~ Elton John and Bernie Taupin
Elton John’s “Rocket Man” was a fitting background to my early teen years, when fellow space buff and aspiring writer Dave Michaels and I met, and shared our obsessive love of spaceflight in the dying days of the Apollo program. With lunar flight behind us, buried by what seemed like capriciousness on the part of the Nixon Administration, our teenage minds turned to Mars. Though not as hypnotic as the Chesley Bonestell imagery of our earlier years, I recall spending hours with a National Geographic map of Mars compiled from the imagery collected by the Mariner 9 spacecraft, a map that Dave later gave me, and that I still possess. It was still a vast world, with as much land area as the Earth, and with its own surprises; Valles Marineris, a 2500 mile long gash across the face of Mars and one of the largest known canyons in the solar system, or the 14 mile tall Olympus Mons, one of the tallest mountains known.
A dune field in Hale Crater from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Mars continues to surprise us, and exploration by instrumented craft of the planet has yielded not only tremendous understanding of the nature of the mechanisms that have created Mars and our own world, but also an endless collection of captivating images (cataloged here for anyone to browse in the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment website) that are every bit of astonishing as anything Bonestell could have conceived, images that, for better and worse, remove the mystery of the planet that has called to us for millennia, and reveal its all too frequently unexpected reality.
Still, 41 years since humankind last lifted off from the Moon, we — not only as a nation, but as a species — have yet to send people beyond low Earth orbit.
The Space Shuttle, despite being grievously behind schedule and over budget, at least reasserted an American human presence in space. Disappointingly, it was never used as a part of an infrastructure for deep space exploration, and turned out to be so costly that it would be worth considering if the Apollo/Saturn architecture might have been less expensive in the long run.
The space shuttle, like the camel, was a horse designed by committee. (I, like McKayla Maroney, was not impressed.)
The lion’s share of the Space Shuttle’s career was focused on the International Space Station (ISS), and the ISS does impress me, in part from the recognition that this outpost “on the other side of the sky” has been crewed continually for nearly twelve and a half years. I suspect Wernher von Braun would have been proud.
I’d pretty much written off ever seeing human beings ever set foot on Mars during my lifetime, and then, in the middle of last year, entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp announced his Mars One project, a venture built around the idea of sending volunteers to Mars to stay — and never come back. This got my attention, but only long enough for me to size it up as hardly more than a suicide mission.
And then boom! — the Inspiration Mars announcement.
Rationally, I still have my doubts of the wisdom of this. Over the last few years — due largely from research carried out either on or because of the International Space Station — we have learned some disturbing things about space flight.
- At least some bacteria become far more virulent in a microgravity environment;
- Antibody production in the human body is suppressed in a microgravity environment;
- And, disturbingly, the eyesight of space travelers can be damaged, possibly permanently, by (you guessed it) the microgravity environment.
Yet, two space records seem to be the exceptions to these “rules” — cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent 437 days aboard the Russian Mir space station in 1994 through 1995, and did not suffer any long term impacts from his experience. Additionally, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev has spent a collective total of 803 days, nine hours and 39 minutes in space, and does not appear to be planning on hanging up his space suit anytime soon. (Krikalev also holds the distinction of being “the last Citizen of the U.S.S.R.,” being aboard the Mir space station during the break-up of the Soviet Union.)
Oo-oo-ooh, I’m Not a Space Man, No No
If we listen to the space medicine experts, this 501 day mission that Dennis Tito’s organization has proposed would be, at best, a calculated risk.
Is it a risk worth calculating? Is there a Mars in my future?
No. But there might be one in yours.
Unfortunately (or not), I can’t even think about it. Similar to Dave’s wife, I have some kind of inner ear issue that would wash me out of consideration, let alone my history of near-sightedness, etc., etc., etc. (The fact that I discovered centrifugal motion does a serious number on my sense of balance during a ride on Disneyworld’s Mission Mars attraction is an irony that is not lost on me.)
And I wouldn’t be seeing any canals with my own eyes, or the glinting of sunlight off of the glassy domes of their megalopoli.
(Or their flying saucers.)
But if I had born a decade later, and inherited my father’s technical savvy instead of the genes that dictated his poor eyesight, I might be beating on Dennis Tito’s door this very minute. Loudly.
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Copyright © 2013, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.