Monday, March 8, 2010

Budget Cuts Killed the Radio Star


I belong to the BlogCatalog community, where I am the lucky recipient of continual invitations to other science blogs, and occasional comments or questions in my "ShoutBox". A fellow BC blogger recently lobbed this delightful grenade:

BlogCatalog Community
Great questions, Mike! Wow... bright, handsome, and politically correct to boot! Thank you for implying that women might make it to Mars, just as the Russians announce that they've set their watches back a century.

Didn't our mothers fight this battle already? I distinctly remember the smell of burnt brassiere in the morning. Of course, that was back in the 20th century when people actually cared about space exploration. Boo, hiss.

Do you think it's possible for people endure 6 months of weightlessness?
Yes, I do believe we will reach that point. Research and resulting counter-measures made it possible for routine long-duration stays in space, with far less ramifications to bodily health. A Mars voyage, however, might take nearly two years -- that's a long time in micro-gravity! Varied medical simulations are continually exploring how to ensure minimal impact on the immune system, sleep patterns, heart health, bone density and muscle fitness.

Other behavioral and procedural sims, such as the Mars500, are exploring the unique psychological stresses that might be factors on a long, isolated space flight. Still other teams in multiple nations are examining nutritional requirements, and which exercise equipment might be most effective.

The remaining major question mark is radiation in space. How will a human body react to un-blocked cosmic rays and solar flares? This remains to be seen, and the research on this, unsurprisingly, moves at a slower clip than other biological or psychological simulations.

Are we even there yet technologically to attempt such a voyage?
In some ways, yes. In some ways, no. So, no.

We have the knowledge to build a craft to withstand the journey, and we have the materials, if money was no object. Chemical rocket or plasma rocket? Shape and design of the craft? Hotly debated. Any ship aimed toward Mars would have to be gigantic, in order to carry the necessary fuel, crew, food, water, breathable air, medical equipment, space suits, tools, and of course a lander.

If you had asked me any of these question back in 1977 when Star Wars came out, I'd have chirped happily: sure, Mars will be a reality in no time! I'll be married to Han Solo by then and we'll be neighbors under a big glass dome! Give me a break, I was 8 years old. But even just five years ago, my response would have been far more inspirited.

Today... well, it's become clear that we're all at the mercy of a dispassionate public, and struggling to find the money.

Why don't they send people to the moon first to see if they can bring them back in one piece and then go for Mars?
I am also squarely on the Moon First team. While the processes of getting hardware and warm bodies to the lunar surface are complex and not what I would casually call a "piece of cake" -– I do think it makes sense to work out the kinks close to home before we risk the sheer distance to the red planet. Common sense, right? But I am in a shrinking minority.

NASA's leaders say that Mars is the main goal… but have yet to outline a clear path, and I am not sure why the "elephant in the room" is not a larger factor in the current discussions about Mars –- i.e. the obvious reality that we could not possibly launch a ship directly from Earth to Mars. The gravity of our planet is too strong, and a ship of the necessary life-sustaining size would make take-off impossible with our current rocket technology.


I think this is the part that comes as a genuine shock to many people who believe this has all been sorted out, and we're such a clever little heap of hairless apes that we can launch whatever we please so long as it's a sunny day in Florida. One of my relatives recently asked me how close we are to "warp drive"?

One solution is to assemble a ship in the micro-gravity of Low Earth Orbit, or the one-sixth gravity environment of our lunar satellite. Y'think?