Monday, August 10, 2009

Moon vs. Mars


Hadn't intended for this to turn into MARS week, but as long as we're on the subject... how do you weigh in: should we go to the moon again first? Or reach for Mars? The debates appear to have heated up, or at least merited more journalistic attention since the Apollo anniversary.

A few days ago, I mentioned the Mars series written by Ben Bova (part of his larger "Grand Tour" of novels). One of the reasons I found them intriguing was their attempt at realism: no fanciful aliens, no technologies that defy our current understanding of physics, chemistry or cosmology -- and to this day, we cannot genuinely disprove anything he postulates in his novels as being "possible."

Bova tackles all the human elements of how missions are planned, funded and conducted -- from the fierce competition in getting a spot on the team and the rough work of astronauts and scientists, to the possible injuries, catastrophes, discoveries and...

Mars Series by Ben Bova
...interestingly, he casually takes for granted that a moon base is already in place before we leap to Mars, because we need lunar resources.

However, whether we return to the moon or shoot for Mars in “real life,” the costs will always be far more than some people think is wise, and many of the human challenges will be the same. No matter where we go, we take all our traits with us... ambition, nobility, love, jealousy, envy, and perhaps even the odd urge to commit sabotage if we break from sanity under harsh conditions.

The potential travelers will have to work hard, cope with fear and isolation, tend greenhouses, perform experiments and stay healthy – which would be a trick even for a field team on Earth, nevermind bickering on a foreign sphere about who gets the keys to the rover today. Could you go for a year or more living in a box, where the only way to go outside is to spend 40 minutes stuffing yourself into a clunky, cumbersome life support suit? Shouldn't we practice this on the moon first to ensure it can be done before taking the risk on faraway Mars?

Moon vs. Mars
In a larger scheme, those interested in science want to keep exploration focused ON SCIENCE, but they will always clash with the greedy fat-cats who see dollar signs, and religious fanatics who may hope to cling to ancient spiritual texts instead of newly discovered facts. Imagine making a monumental discovery on a distant planet -- only to be potential target for those who want space to be a tourist attraction... or those who want exploration to stop entirely because it threatens their pre-conceptions about creation.

Ironically, some of the arguments "envisioned" by Bova in the 1990s aren't all that different than the actual arguments now taking place:

Houston Chronicle: Mars Society Founder Faces Uphill Sell

Air & Space: Mars Direct: Is The Moon A Stepping Stone Or Distraction?

NPR: Moon Step First, Mars Leap Later?

News Daily: Bush Schedule vs. Obama Schedule


Roy said...

Sure, just give away the plot, sheez. I believe moon first as well, it seems wiser. On the downside, don’t forget that there will also always be a certain amount of fringe people who’ll say it didn’t happen. Even if we do go to Mars, crackpots will insist it was all filmed in the Arizona desert.

brian said...

I don't think the Moon and Mars are mutually exclusive destinations. Both are worthy of scientific study, and both can answer important scientific questions about the origin of the solar system, Earth, and life itself. If we're smart, we'll develop a space infrastructure flexible enough to support these and other exploration goals.

I had a post on this topic last month, where I said I prefer Mars as the main stated goal of a national space program. This will help us avoid getting mired down on the Moon. I recommend readers listen to the audio interview with Robert Zubrin that I provide in that post.

Plus, I really think private industry is poised to take over space operations in low earth orbit and maybe even the Moon in the relatively near future. This means a government space program like NASA should probably focus its attention on the more challenging and less explored technological hurdles of getting humans to Mars. That means "artificial" gravity, radiation shielding, life support systems, and in situ fuel generation technologies.

Also, strictly from a cost and astronautical point of view, it is easier to get to Mars directly from Earth than from the Moon. Zubrin's book "The Case for Mars" lays it all out in great detail. There are no resources on the Moon that we'd need to get to Mars, and launching from the Moon offers no energetic advantage compared to the Earth.

We can and should use the Moon to learn about how humans can live on extended space expeditions, but not at the expense of delaying Mars missions for that reason alone. I'll be the first in line for a ticket to either of these planets (after all, the view of Earth from the Moon must be breathtaking), but Mars is truly the more exciting destination since we could conceivably really live there - like the Bova and Kim Stanley Robinson books so realistically portray.

Sach said...

Hmm! I'll jot that down - Ben Bova. Just about never read fiction, but this one might be worth it as how you described it!

I agree with Brain on the opening up of space to private enterprise. This is one of the last remaining industries not entered into by private enterprises. No wonder it costs like US$20,000/kg of payload. Reasons too long and complex for me to type out. People keep asking: Do we still need NASA manning the 'Space Gates'?

Also, if you get the time (and anyone else), can you give your opinion on whether this woman just sang an 'Anti Apollo' song?

What did she mean by 'justify the waste...'?

Julz M. said...

Private sector development might also avoid a lot of the bureaucracy developing in the larger space agencies that have now been around for decades... and perhaps tackle some of the problems the government programs don't seem to want to deal with. For example, does anyone expect a multi-gendered trip to be sex-free? We all need comfort and warmth, particularly in the face of loneliness or fear -- something the space agencies continually shun, perhaps trying to avoid criticism or any accusation of political incorrectness. But ignoring such a basic animal reality could have grave consequences.

Knowledge-wise however, I think it's better to TEST activities and hardware on the moon first. Mars is a hell of a long ways away if any kinds of "miscalculations" are made.