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