Archives For space

valles marineris

Despite the flimsy plans and questionable premise of the Mars One project, there are now tens of thousands of people who signed up to possibly die on another planet and only a few of them will be chosen for the reality show style mission. Which is still many years away from being ready in any way, shape or form. But as would-be colonists are preparing to leave Earth behind for an alien tundra, one of the big things going overlooked is their mental health, according to a post featured in The Guardian. No, no one’s implying that the applicants are not in their right mind to sign up for a once in a lifetime trip, literally, but that their psyche is in serious danger because a number of studies on human behavior in isolation, under scruitiny, and in confined spaces for a long period of time point to a very high probability of boredom, depression, and anxiety. And the last thing you want a space colonist to be is bored, depressed, and agitated. That’s when really, really bad things can happen and with no one to intervene, they can spiral out of control while a shocked audience powerlessly watches from up to 140 million miles away. This would make for an unforgettable night of TV, but it’s certainly wouldn’t make for a good mission to Mars.

As I recently argued, this is why we need spacious, almost luxury spacecraft if we want to really explore the solar system and beyond. We want our astronauts to be stimulated and have every possible comfort of home. The excitement of a mission to another planet would be powerful, but it’s only going to last so long until the monotony of a long trip takes over and all the experiments and chores turn into tedious tasks on a checklist. We need interplanetary internet with Netflix as well as games, the ability to leave messages to friends and loved ones on Earth at any time, the schedule should a lot for weekends, and the habitats should allow for both communal areas, and big private spaces to counter the feeling of being confined. Certainly this sounds like a wish list of a spoiled teenager rather than necessities for astronauts, but astronauts are humans too and we need to take care of their mental health while they’re doing things no human has ever done, and exploring places no human has ever been. Considering that they’re trying to build a city in an icy, poisonous, alien desert, is trying to give them a way to play Halo or surf the web really an unjustifiable luxury, especially if it will keep them from possibly developing a mental illness?

[ illustration by Tiago da Silva ]

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space station concept

Not too long ago, Ars ran an article detailing proposals for modifying the proven and successful hardware built for Apollo for flyby missions to Venus and Mars.None of these plans are new by any means because they were actually made in the 1970s, when the lunar program was coming to an end and NASA’s big wigs wanted to show Congress and the American people how far their flagship spacecraft could go. Of course we know that nothing ever came form these plans, but in recent times, the Mars One idea, and the Inspiration Mars project, seem to be planned in much the same vein. Let’s use what we have, make the crew as comfortable as we can in an austere ship for about two years or so, and do some attention-grabbing missions to show we can do the kinds of things emerging space powers can only dream of attempting one day. As the sage and endlessly quotable Mark Twain once said, history might not repeat itself but it does rhyme and in the case of rushed, crewed flybys of other planets, the second go-around is likely to end like the first: we talk about it and nothing gets done because the ideas are just too rough and costly.

I have to say though, the notions of explorers cramped in tiny vessels braving the harshness of space in the name of our species’ progress have a romantic ring to them. But for the majority of the population, this is going to be something for someone else to do. If more people could work on space exploration and actually travel into space as a part of their job to clean up space junk, launch and repair scientific probes or spy satellites, and even go beyond to mine valuable parts of asteroids, allowing us to tap into the immense resources of the solar system, wouldn’t you see a lot more support for the space program? I’ve written more than I can count about the benefits of investing in space travel and exploration, from medical, to engineering, to energy generation, but the bottom line is that people have to see an immediate benefit to them from the program to pressure politicians to invest; a benefit like potential careers in space. For that to happen, we’re going to need to think beyond flybys and short excursions with long travel times. We’re going to need to think about launching interplanetary space stations with artificial gravity and a whole lot of creature comforts to help astronauts do their jobs and have fun as they’re traveling.

You could argue that we’d have no shortage of would-be explorers willing to travel to Pluto in a rusty, old, sardine can if given a chance, and you’d be right. But odds are, most of them will not be qualified to make that trip and the ones who do will face mental challenges for which we can’t really prepare them. Consider NASA’s latest astronaut class. Out of 1,500 applicants, only eight have been deemed worthy of living in a space station in LEO. What do you think will be the rate of selection for deep space travelers in spartan conditions for years on end with no hope of help from Earth in the event of emergency? We shouldn’t be focused on finding tougher people and billionaires who want to throw technology built for brief orbital travel into interplanetary space. It won’t help us in the long run. We should be focused on developing efficient and powerful means of propulsion, large, comfortable spacecraft, and setting up self-sufficient ready-to-go-anywhere ecosystems that will let us launch more people in space, keep them there longer with less risk to their muscles and bones, and enable them to do more and more jobs there.

Would the price tag be high? Absolutely. But the trade-off is that we could tell more than one in roughly a million people that they’re astronaut material and we have a job for them. Now, space travel would still be challenging, even with a lot of attention paid to the amenities, but it will make long term exploration missions more viable and generate more spin-offs we can apply right back on Earth while testing new generations of materials, medical devices, genetic engineering, and cyborg technologies for applications in space. We’ve been treating the Final Frontier as fodder for philosophy and romanticism for a little too long. We need to start seeing it as a business and an investment in new industries vying to make a real world difference, and old industries that will once again be needed to work as full capacity after they’re upgraded to meet the demands of a new space-faring age. As I said before, I can think of no nation that ever went bankrupt investing in science, technology, and education. But many have collapsed when they tried to cover for the shortfalls of their economy with bread, circuses, war, and zero-sum political brinkmanship…

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black hole accretion disk

Apologies for the sudden hiatus everyone. In the last several weeks, life has interfered with any possibility of writing and when there has been time for anything, it’s been occupied by Project X which actually does concern this blog and will be detailed in the future. But I’m finally back, and back with an astronomical bang, or FRBs to be exact. You see, recently astronomers have been puzzled by extremely energetic bursts that last for fractions of a second and vanish forever. It’s like a GRB, the birth cry of a newly born black hole, but it all happens in less than the blink of an eye rather than depending on the size of the cataclysm. These bursts are currently called FRBs and no one is really sure what they are, where they generally originate in the night sky, and how much energy they’re really emitting, repeating the original dilemma with GRBs when they were first discovered. Now we have our first theoretical contender called SURONs, or Supramassive Rotating Neutron Stars, the end result of supernovae that should have created black holes but didn’t, not yet at least. They’re essentially ticking black hole time bombs floating in space.

When our sun will die, it will slowly pulsate and cool into a white dwarf because its mass is below the Chandrashekhar limit, the point at which a star becomes too heavy not to collapse on itself as a supernova. There are some objects that challenge exactly where this limit comes into play, but it seems to be about 1.44 solar masses. Stars heavier than that produce iron in their cores during the last stages of their lives and the unique thing about iron is that fusing it produces no net energy output. Bascially, the strong nuclear force’s interactions with iron’s nucleons create a point of diminishing returns on the nuclear binding energy and the tightly wound nuclei of iron is the first element from which a nuclear reaction can’t extract anything worthwhile. No matter how much iron is being fused, there’s just not enough energy to keep its outer layers from collapsing inward and detonating as a supernova. This is when another important astronomical limit comes into play, the Tolman-Oppenheimer-Volkoff limit. (Yes, that Oppenheimer.) If a neutron star left after a supernova is about two solar masses, it will collapse on itself as a black hole.

Although "will" is kind of a strong word really, a better one would be "should." And this is exactly where the SURONs come into play. Neutron stars are made of degenerate matter, or particles in such a high density environment that the only thing keeping them from falling into each other is, well, each other. Compressing them any more shatters matter as we know it and creates chaotic maelstroms of energy that flow into each other. Degenerate matter at the core of neutron stars can be so hot and dense that it’s basically a weird quantum fluid with no viscosity already, so it’s not going to take all that much to turn it into a black hole. In fact, SURONs are just over the limit and the pressure of its outer layers should’ve triggered a collapse but the particles in their cores were given a brief reprieve. Stars spin and whatever momentum is left after their fiery death has to transfer to the pulsar left behind. Because the star was well over a million miles across and a typical pulsar is tens of miles across, that energy sends the little pulsar spinning wildly arouns its axis, sometimes as fast as 1,122 times per second. This releaves just enough pressure to keep the core from imploding and leave the SURON a neutron star spinning wildly through space.

But there’s a catch. SURONs have extremely strong magnetic fields and those fields will interact with the nebula left behind as will the interactions between its radioactive death beams and gas and dust. Over thousands of years, this will all put a brake on how quickly the neutron star spins which means that at a certain point, the pressure on its core will start building back up until the inevitable happens and the degenerate matter swallows itself and becomes a black hole. Since the SURONs is relatively puny, this collapse happens in a fraction of a second. Its fearsome and powerful magnetic fields will be severed from the just formed event horizon and re-connect very, very violently just outside of it, generating a potent and very short radio pulse. An FRB. This is a nice and tidy explanation because SURONs would be roughly the same size and the event would be pretty much uniform, almost like a Type Ia supernova used as a standard unit for measuring the rate of the universe’s expansion. We don’t know if these neutron stars ticking away into new black holes really do dot the sky and this is not the only possible explanation of FRBs, but it is a pretty good one and it seems quite solid. And that’s often as good as it gets in astronomy…

See: Falcke, H., Rezzolla, L. (2013). Fast radio bursts: the last sign of supramassive neutron stars. Astronomy & Astrophysics arXiv: 1307.1409v1

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primordial black hole

At two events of the Wolrd Science Festival in early June,  a group of five theoretical physicists debated whether we’re living in a multiverse, and more surprisingly, if our current understanding of the cosmos all but mandates that multiple universes exist. It all goes back to the instant of the Big Bang, the femtosecond that set the rules for all reality as we know it in scientific terms. Each tiny little quantum instability and flux was stretched and projected across billions of light years to influence the shape of galaxy clusters and the tiny filaments what underpin our mostly isotropic, homogeneous universe. It’s kind of like the chaos theory saying about a flap of a butterfly’s wings eventually causing a tsunami halfway across the world, but taken to incredible extremes. We’re talking about a change in point particles becoming an archipelago a million galaxies across. So, why wouldn’t some of these instabilities become their own universes, sealed off from each other by the fabric of space and time? The inflation we just described should make this inevitable.

Here’s the issue. As our infant universe was inflating, it shouldn’t have spun off uniformly since that would make the fluctuations in early matter impossible and prevented the formation of stars and galaxies. It would’ve had to have large enough disruptions to kick-start other universes, or even itself be a product of another universe undergoing rapid inflation. And if one universe can inflate, so too must the rest because otherwise, inflation becomes a unique event and science is not happy with a one-off event as an explanation. Every significant process we know of happens more than once and on universal time scales of countless trillions of years, the possibilities are pretty much infinite. We should be able to see new universes bubbling up from dark voids in the fabric of space-time, over time. There might even be room to imagine a bizarre, hyper-advanced species of the far future crossing into a brand new universe as theirs dies in a void ship isolated from reality as we know it, Doctor Who-style, hopefully one that’s nothing like the Daleks.

Problem is, how do we prove that inflation works in more than one universe when we can’t see into the multiverse? One suggestion is that inflation basically wraps the universe into a sphere, an unbreachable, self-contained environment that seems flat to us and where trying to travel to the edge of the cosmos will result in the spaceship ending up back where it started as if it were on a Mobius strip. Simple, elegant, and convenient as far as solutions to cosmological problems go, don’t you think? And that’s precisely what’s so bothersome about it. Nothing in cosmology is that simple, even inflation itself. Instead of slowing down, it’s accelerating. Instead of flying apart into clouds of stars and gas under their own momentum, galaxies are keeping their shapes until a collision distorts them thanks to invisible dark matter. Hell, some 96% of the universe isn’t even matter and almost three quarters of it is some mysterious energy feeding its expansion. Does it really make sense that in a universe like that simple, convenient explanations will fly?

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approach to mars

According to Wired’s laundry list of technical and political issues with getting humans to Mars by the year 2030 or so, exploring another planet many millions of miles away won’t be Apollo 2.0 in many ways. It will be an order of magnitude more expensive per launch, require 30 months for a round trip, and needs to be financed, overseen, and executed by an international group that will include space agencies and ambitious aerospace companies with plans and launch vehicles of their own. And yet, the designs being drawn up sound remarkably like Apollo on steroids. We’re basically working with the same basic mission plans we had in the 1980s with a few workarounds for handling fuel and oxygen. Come on folks, this is another planet. It’s not just a status symbol and we don’t need to rush there just to say we went. Really, we don’t. Flag planting is great for propaganda and PR purposes, but it’s disastrous for long term exploration, which needs to be a very boring, consistent, and yes, expensive effort. We need a better plan than this.

Now, as much as this blog will support my assertion that I’m all about space exploration and will go as far as to advocate augmenting humans to travel into deep space (which led to numerous arguments with the Singularity Institute’s fellows), we don’t have to go to Mars as soon as we’re able to launch. It’s been there for 4.5 billion years. It’s not going anywhere for at least another five billion, and we owe it to ourselves to do it right. This is why instead of sending a much bigger capsule or an updated ISS for a 30 month round trip, we need to send inflatable, rotating space stations powered by small nuclear reactors. Instead of landers, we need to send self-assembling habitats. Instead of going to Mars to stick a flag into the ground, collect rocks, and do some very brief and limited experiments to look for traces of organic compounds, we need to commit to an outright colonization effort, and we need to test the basics on the Moon before we go. We won’t fulfill our dreams of roaming the stars and living on alien worlds if we don’t get this right.

Yes, it sounds downright crazy to propose something like that, especially thanks to the political climates of today. And it is. But at the risk of repeating myself, when we have trillions of banks to erase their bad bets from the books and nothing to aid the paltry budgets of space agencies or labs working on the technology of the future, the issue isn’t money. It’s priorities, vision, and will, and today’s politicians have the first one skewed, and more often than not either lack the other two, or envision our society going backwards as if this is a good thing. And we can keep right on placating ourselves by saying that we’ll at least get to roam around the solar system a bit like we did once, but that’s not how we should be exploring space. We know it’s not. if you want to really reach out into space, you go in for the long term with your eye on the spin-offs and benefits that will rain down from massive, ambitious, integrated projects that try to do what’s never been done before not by reinventing the wheel, but by attaching said wheel to a new airplane.

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mars one habitat

The Mars One project generated a good deal of media attention by promising to fund its efforts to colonize the Red Planet with a reality show which would follow the crews on their one way trip and chronicle their efforts at living on another world. Now while this sounds like the most far out premise for the next season of Survivor, it’s a terrible idea for an actual mission. If you’ve ever seen a reality show, you know that producers don’t really cast people as much as they cast the stereotypes they think will give viewers the most bang for their buck. If Gordon Ramsey didn’t go on epic tirades over every dish not up to his par, slamming trays, punching the food, and having fits of apoplectic rage that would put a banshee to shame, you’d be left with a fairly boring hour of TV that would be more at home at the Food Network than on a broadcast channel. Could you imagine Hell’s Spacecraft as a real mission to extend human cities to a new planet?

And that’s not even getting to the fact that Mars One is asking anyone to apply for what should be a mission for extremely well trained professionals with numerous actual space flights on their resumes, and charging as much as $38 just to look at an application, and that it will rely on new rockets built by SpaceX to do the actual work, as well as the fact that it’s spending no time at all trying to address all the problems with flying to Mars in capsules? At the end of the day this has to be either a scam, or just a really terrible idea that will never pan out. Make no mistake, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to colonize Mars or that we can’t pull it off if we really devoted plenty of time, energy, and resources to it. We absolutely should and we’re probably very close to the place we need to be to safely and comfortably send crews to the Red Planet. But making reality shows out of it, raising money by promising one way trips to alien worlds, and relying on brand new technology not really meant or tested for these missions is not the way to go about it.

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galaxy in hands

Planck’s unblinking eye on the sky far from Earth was supposed to map the cosmic background radiation, the echos of the Big Bang, to figure out whether the previous CMBR maps were right and see how much we know about the universe and how it works. Now, after more than a year of very strenuous stargazing, some 29 papers are behind published on the results, and while they adjust the proportions of ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energy slightly, they’re still very much in line with what we thought we knew about the cosmos. There’s more ordinary matter like the type that makes everything we see and touch, a decent dollop more dark matter, and a little less dark energy, which means that the universe’s inflation rate is slightly slower and the age of all space as we know it is slightly higher, which makes it 13.81 billion years old rather than 13.77 billion, give or take a few tens of millions of years. But otherwise, not much needs to change in a science textbook aside from having them pay even less attention to some exotic theories.

Honestly, it’s a little boring because science really likes to make breakthroughs and having the universe as seen by Planck present us with a completely different CMBR landscape than WMAP would’ve made a few hundred careers and even a couple of Nobel Prizes, as well as attract a lot of attention to the field. But at the same time, science ultimately needs to stand up to scrutiny at every level and once in a while, it’s nice to get pretty much what you expect from an experiment, showing you that you have a good grasp of the big picture. And this doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of projects in cosmology’s future. If anything, Planck showed us that we have the outlines of the cosmic puzzle right and have filled out a good chunk of the inside. We could start channeling more and more time and effort into resolving more complex mysteries within a well established framework to uncover what’s behind enigmatic anomalies and exactly why the CMBR map looks the way it does, which would give us a more accurate view of the Big Bang…

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europa

We’ve long known that there was an ocean or something very much like it under the icy crust of the Jovian moon Europa, and that this icy wasteland offers one of the best chances to find life in our solar system despite living in a very turbulent and radioactive neighborhood. And now, the same astronomer who stunned Pluto before the IAU’s planetary double-tap, Mike Brown, found strong evidence that Europa’s ocean is leaking to the surface and is salty like ours. Basically, a short summary of the elegant details I encourage you to read from Dr. Brown himself is that the chemical residues on the moon’s surface match up with exactly what we’d expect if it had a thick, salty, liquid ocean which periodically rises through the cracks in the ice and leaves deposits as it recedes with the tides. We could learn even more, but radiation scatters other compounds we could measure from our post right here on the blue marble. So far, though, so good for bacteria and multicellular colonies that could potentially call Europa home.

Now it’s very important to know that organic chemical signatures do not always mean life and a distinct lack of experience with alien organisms on our part means that until we actually see one with our probes and run several hundred tests and a few thousand reviews of the data from all those tests, we won’t know if we found alien organisms. Well, unless an alien fish just wiggles to the camera and waves hello. That would speed up the announcement. But in all seriousness, as far as cases for promising habitats go, everything we find about Europa makes it look better and better for exploration. The only problem is that the ocean where so much life could exist lies so far down, in some cases under several miles of ice. Drilling through it is complicated and really dangerous for robotic probes, so the focus has been on trying to get access to the ocean with a minimum of digging, using something like a rover with a tiny submarine to explore the shallows. If what Brown has found is any indication, we might find even more about Europa’s chemistry this way since some of the more scientifically interesting chemicals could just float up to us.

However, keep in mind that the moon’s surface is bathed by radiation and microorganisms that evolve under several miles of ice and meters of water would be instantly fried to a crisp if they’re exposed to it, leaving promising but ambiguous residue on the surface. For anything more alien and complex than extremophiles that may have even survived the trip from Earth, we will need to be ready to dive deep and look far and wide. It’s actually another reason for human exploration of the outer solar system. Robots can only be made so clever in space, and they’re not good at dealing with the unknown and the uncertain, having no instinct or useful previous experiences from which to make decisions about new environments. Having humans guide them as they look for alien life on an unknown, largely unfamiliar world would be a terrific fusion of our brainpower and machine endurance that could lead to something as big as proof that we’re not alone. That knowledge alone should justify the effort of making the trip.

[ illustration by Guillermo Krieger ]

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printed moonbase

By now it’s hard to argue that modern 3D printing isn’t one of the hottest and most useful trends in engineering today and in the next five to ten years could well change the balance of powers in global manufacturing. Why deal with customs, foreign officials on the take just looking to dip into your business model to make a knock-off or wrest control of your factory on their soil when you could simply print superior, higher quality designs in your own lab? But that’s not the only thing that’s got engineers and high-minded VCs excited about 3D printing. It turns out that you could print your own Moon base and there are now two architectural firms pitching a design for sleek, futuristic habitats on the lunar surface using regolith. Why fly your habitats to another world and work in tiny, cramped spaces until you can chain more of them together when you can send an intelligent swarm of remote-controlled robots to print you a roomy base when you get there?

This is another reason why instead of aiming for our triumphant pre-victory lap around Mars, we should get back to the Moon because while we’ve been there, we haven’t done it all and printing lunar bases can translate into printing habitats on Mars. True, just because you could heat up a chunk of lunar regolith with microwaves and fuse it into a solid smooth, safe wall that will protect astronauts against radiation and extreme temperatures does not necessarily mean that Martian regolith would behave exactly the same way. But we do know enough about the composition of the red planet to make the necessary little tweaks in the process and construct resilient, roomy habitats before the astronauts even get there. Though there is the catch that building on Mars with remote-controlled robots involves a significant lag from Earth so the best method may be to send a space station with a compliment of engineers to closely watch the robots’ work and pitch in when something goes wrong or the process needs to deviate from the plan.

It wouldn’t be the cheapest method, but it would be quite efficient and get the bases built pretty quickly. On top of that, 3D printing your alien outpost gives you the freedom to create shapes that aren’t only functional and aesthetically pleasing, but uniquely suited to the world on which you’re now living. Sleek shapes on Mars virtually grown out of the rocks below mean resistance to powerful wind storms, while large, leaf-like forests of solar panels on the Moon mean catching as much solar energy as needed with the capacity to generate even more as the base grows. If we tried to completely 3D print homes and skyscrapers on Earth, things like zoning laws and the construction industry’s lag behind the cutting edge to save costs would quickly get in the way of completely new kinds of urban development. But in space, where 3D printing means invaluable creature comforts and protection for astronauts with the only zoning restriction being a lack of a military base on an alien world, this approach makes a lot of sense and can drive demand for 3D printed structures here after showing their utility and strength in harsh wastelands.

Suddenly, people might wonder what a 3D printed condo that can withstand a hurricane costs to build, and residents of skyscrapers in South Korea very unhappy with the swaying that happens during monsoons and architects trying to build higher and higher might be interested in growing a new building rather than come up with ever more complex stabilizers and aerodynamic shapes for their structures. There’s certainly precedent for a major space effort resulting in interest in a new kind of technology. After integrated circuits got Apollo to the Moon and back, chip makers used the lessons learned to build modern electronics like powerful desktops, laptops, and even portable music players. Perhaps 3D printing in space for scientists and tourists funded by starry eyed businesspeople like Musk, Tito, Branson, and Bigelow could provide a huge push for new generations of efficient, disaster-resistant cities on Earth while helping us achieve our dreams of solar system exploration? Maybe I’m a dreamer, but this doesn’t seem too far fetched to me…

[ illustration of a 3D printed lunar base by Foster + Partners ]

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inspiration mars

There’s been plenty of news coverage regarding the Inspiration Mars mission being funded by space tourist and tycoon Dennis Tito, who says he’s willing to pay whatever it takes to make the manned flyby of Mars possible by 2018, when the planets best align for a 501 day round-trip. He needs the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, a manned version of the Dragon tested and ready, and some way to address the intense cosmic ray bombardment in interplanetary space. So as far as ambitious missions go, this doesn’t sound technologically unfeasible Difficult? Certainly so, but not impractical. Expensive? Absolutely, but not so much that it would be impossible to raise the money, especially with crowdsourcing and the participation of other space-minded, wealthy, big picture human exploration enthusiasts. And there’s very unlikely to be a shortage of the married couples with engineering experience Tito suggest should make the flyby. However, there are big problems with what Inspiration Mars wants to do and how, despite the technical feasibility.

Basically, it’s a mission to show the world that the United States still has the lead in space travel and can send humans to Mars and back, just a flight or two away from actually landing them on the surface, as with the Apollo 8 flyby. This means that not only is 2018 important from a purely mechanical perspective, but as Tito says, the next opportunity in 2031 could see attempts from other space powers and would make it harder for the United States to be the first to fly by Mars, much less land on the Red Planet. Remember what happened to Apollo after it achieved its PR goals? Inspiration Mars might not have the same problem if it’s funded by wealthy supporters of long term human space exploration, but these supporters don’t have endless pools of money to pour into mission after mission and after a bad enough market crash, might not be able to justify the expense of supporting the foundation. Even worse, when the country is preoccupied with its unemployment rate, debt, and runaway political brinkmanship, who’s got time for Mars?

Just like the chorus of well meaning but horribly short-sighted voices protested Curiosity, and a pundit or two were unable to resist assailing Musk for not spending his fortune the same way as Bill Gates chose to, there’s bound to be a narrative of a rich old guy wasting money that might have fed some of the poor and needy in this country on some Martian pipe dream. That’s not a great PR project for STEM in the making, especially when we consider that the supposed decay of American science and technology isn’t what it’s made out to be and in fact, we don’t have the jobs for all the engineers and scientists we churn out. Inspiration Mars is one way to create jobs for some scientists and engineers for seven years, but certainly not a long term solution to a big problem that by now is downright institutional. Likewise, the five year design to launch time table seems aggressive to a fault because it doesn’t seem willing to take the time to mature any more efficient ways of getting humans to other worlds in order to make the schedule.

Using a version of a naval nuclear reactor fitted for spacecraft to power a new VASIMR plasma engine could get the crew to Mars faster, provide more energy, allow for more space, and more efficient and ambitious missions. Right now, Tito is planning to launch two people in a tiny pod to travel millions of miles for a year and a third, far away from any visual sign of home and no way back should something really bad happen far enough along in the mission just to show that this could be done. This seems downright inhumane and every simulation of spending a lot of time in crowded isolation on Earth came with familiar gravity, air, and knowledge that should things not work out, the participants can just leave. Even year-long stays on a space station came with the familiar blue marble constantly below and a short trip home possible in an emergency. But over one year in the space of an RV floating in the darkness with one other person, no niceties and creature comforts as part of a PR push for a well equipped, major mission? Seems rather harsh, and like the Mars 500 experiment shows, mentally exhausting for the astronauts.

Look, I’m one of the last people to say no to a Mars mission. My view on space exploration has consistently been that we’re under-funding it and not doing enough of it. But I also know that we have to do things the right way, plan for long term outposts and missions on another world, and we need to return to the Moon to help us do it. Then, we can build an inflatable space base that uses nuclear reactors adopted from submarines to power plasma engines and send larger and more diverse crews for long term missions to Mars, protected by an artificial magnetosphere and with ample supplies and materials for sustaining the station for years. Having a massive effort to start a Mars outpost and create comfortable, safe, efficient mission options would be a better PR effort than a flyby with what we have laying around just to say we can do it. After all, we won’t be exploring the rest of the solar system using chemical rockets if we want to get humans anywhere within a manageable time schedule. Why start an effort to land on Mars using an updated Apollo concept rather than develop a strategy for long term discovery and outpost building?

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