Mars or Bust

nasa-spacewalk-For SaleAs much as I would love to see someone standing on Mars, I’m worried about the cost, and not just the cost in terms of money or even in terms of human lives. For me, the greatest cost is the cost of lost opportunities elsewhere.

The Apollo Moon landings were originally projected to cost $7 billion dollars but eventually came in at $25 billion dollars, which adjusts to several hundred billion dollars in today’s reckoning.

With half a million people working on the project over the course of a decade, Apollo is the modern equivalent of Stonehenge or the pyramids, it was a landmark in human progress. Apollo was a herculean effort, decades ahead of its time.

The Apollo program was a case of The Moon or Bust. The problem was, such an intense effort wasn’t economically sustainable in the long term. The 70s saw some tremendous space exploration, with the launch of Pioneer, Voyager and the Viking mission to Mars, but as remarkable as these were they were overshadowed by the mothballing of Apollo. Skylab salvaged some of the Apollo hardware from scrapped lunar missions, but plans for up thirty additional Apollo launches, covering everything from a manned fly-by of Venus to a lunar base were quietly shelved.

At the height of the Apollo project, NASA’s budget represented 4.4% of the US national budget. Since then, it has hovered between 0.5% and 1%. The US military, by comparison, consumes anywhere from 6%-9%, although when the books are balanced and all the receipts are talled this figure could be as high as 19%. A mission to Mars is thought to cost somewhere in the order of $20 billion dollars but given the experience with Apollo this is probably a gross underestimate, and there in lies the problem.

Alan ShepardMars or Bust is not an intelligent use of limited resources.

Human exploration is important, but exploration should be goal-driven, not driven by emotions.

Apollo’s goal was to demonstrate technical and economic superiority over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Having been beaten to the punch with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, President Kennedy rallied a nation to salvage its pride. There were scientific outcomes, but these were secondary to planting a flag in lunar soil.

Space exploration needs goals with more substance than the fickle interest of public opinion as that will wax and wane.

The goal of exploring our solar system should be the search for extraterrestrial life, but not little green men, little green microbes.

It sounds silly when put like that, but the discovery of non-Earth-based lifeforms would be the single greatest discovery in the history of mankind.

Our lives are absurdly short. Here at the start of the 21st century we have so little appreciation of how far mankind has come even in just the last hundred years.

1912 BuickA hundred years ago biplanes struggled into the air, cars like this 1912 Buick were little more than jalopies, the average life expectancy for a male was 47, the speed limit on roads in the US was 10 MPH and the leading causes of death were tuberculosis and influenza.

A hundred years ago, we thought the only stars were those of our own galaxy, now we know there are hundreds of billions of galaxies each containing hundreds of billions of stars. Imagine what we’ll know a hundred years from now.

Our understanding of the universe is still in its infancy. We’ve only just begun to shed the Earth-centric myths that have dominated tradition and religion for tens of thousands of years. Ours is but a fleeting glimpse into a universe of astonishing possibilities.

To those that don’t think there’s life in outer space I have but one question, “Where the hell do you think we are?

Of course there’s life in outer space, we’re living proof that life can abound in this harsh, hostile universe.

Is there any other life in outer space? Is there any other intelligent life in outer space? These are good questions. The answer is, we don’t know but we have no reason to think there isn’t.

It is important to note that there’s nothing we’ve discovered that would negate the possibility of life elsewhere. At each juncture we discover more possibilities for life to arise. Just this week, we discovered two planets in what’s considered the habitable zone around Ceti Tau a mere twelve light years away.

Lakes on TitanThere are good reasons to consider that there might be life elsewhere within our own solar system.

My concern is a Mars or Bust mentality may push back the search for life on places like Enceladus, Europa and Titan by half a century. As it is, even without a manned Mars mission, there’s no serious plans for this kind of exploration within the next couple of decades.

My concern is the gargantuan effort to see footprints on Mars could jeopardise other projects that have a real chance of finding life.

When Cassini deployed the Huygens probe on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, scientists were surprised by the absence of naturally occurring acetylene in the atmosphere and the low levels of hydrogen near the surface of the moon when hydrogen was abundant at other altitudes. Although further exploration is needed to confirm these observations, they are precisely what we’d expect to see if methane-based lifeforms were breathing/consuming hydrogen as part of their lifecycle!

Another moon of Saturn, Enceladus is throwing samples into space for us to examine at our leisure. Cassini flew through the fine ejecta from the geysers on Enceladus and detected a saltwater brine that include methane and propane and other carbon-rich molecules. With the right equipment, a fly-by of Enceladus could either analyse or return samples for analysis and reveal the possibile existence of life. Sure beats drilling through miles of ice.

EnceladusOne of the molecules detected by Cassini in the Enceladus plume is Clathrate, a carbon molecule that performs an important role in biology here on Earth, trapping and containing other molecules and proteins.

Ah… but Enceladus is just a moon, right?

Yes, Enceladus is smaller than our Moon and could fit inside Arizona but consider Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter.

Europa is another potential target in the search for life within our solar system.

There is more water on Europa than there is on Earth. In fact, there’s three times as much water on Europa as there is in all of Earth’s lakes and oceans.

Europa Water

We have limited resources when it comes to space exploration, we should use them wisely, where there is the greatest possibility for scientific breakthroughs.

Exploration should be goal-oriented. Our goal should be to find life and that means looking beyond Mars. We’ll get to Mars one day, but let’s not sacrifice good science on the way.

Let’s not make it Mars or Bust.

11 thoughts on “Mars or Bust

  1. Finding life elsewhere would certainly be the greatest discovery we’ll ever make.

    I also believe that cosmology, particle physics and some other theoretical sciences should become more experimental and observational, and less hypothetical in order for us to move forward—despite the period of uncertainty that follows when we pull our noses out of our safe and pretty equations and realize how huge and fierce reality around us is. Particle physics is moving a bit, thanks to the LHC and several other labs, and the knowledge about our solar system is slowly advancing too, but it would need much more interest than it gets now.

    However interesting our nearest neighbors may be (the moon, Mars, Venus), it would definitely pay to invest some interest into flying OUT of our solar system.

    • It’s going to be interesting to see how well the commercialization of space works. It holds great potential, but I suspect it will take a space elevator before we’re really going to be able to kick exploration into overdrive.

  2. I agree that seeing man on Mars would be awesome (I wrote it), but finding any form of life outside Earth would change everything.
    That said, NASA’s problem is marketing. In my view it’s still easier to market a manned mission to Mars than a unmanned one to, say, Titan, even if the former’s cost is tenfold or more. You see how Curiosity has been and is being marketed. Lots of superficial public interest gives NASA the money to pursue space exploration. A counterexample: Voyager has reached the heliopause (or what there is instead of it), and scientists found that things don’t quite add up. That’s very, very interesting and is changing our understanding of the solar system, but no one talks about it.

    The idea is that while pursuing Mars exploration, they might detach a few billions for other missions.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. Flags and footprints were a good enough reason (initially) to go to the moon, but that’s right next door. Going to Mars for the same reason is like going to another continent to borrow a cup of sugar. If we’re determined to go to a different continent, exploration (including, but certainly not limited to, the search for life) should be our primary goal. And we should try to achieve the biggest bang for our buck as much as possible.

    Still, smacking a golf ball on Mars would be something, wouldn’t it?

      • Ah, don’t get me started on the space elevator’s role in space exploration. Seeing what orbital mechanics has to say about it will severely bum you out. But as a science lab and amusement park ride, the space elevator can’t be beat.

  4. For Mars or Bust goal, there are a shit load of goals. First we need to get more research, followed by the discovery of free energy. Then we need a fast drive to get there (maybe the donut with dildo design might be a go after we get free energy). Then we need a plan of what to do when we get there (I’m not into golf – paintball maybe). This should take about 200 years. Kurzweil said we get cybernetic immortality in 14 more years… I think we can… we go baby steps… maybe with a kickstarter campaign hehe.

    • Hey, Happy New Year to you too… Yes, we need a fast drive to get to Mars but only to get astronauts to Mars, everything else can take the slow boat.

      I’m really liking that ion drive, it’s the little engine that could. When it comes to interplanetary travel, most of the “stuff” we take into space is fuel. Look at the size of the Saturn V compared to the Apollo capsule and you’ll see what I mean. Ion drives run on the smell of an oily rag. They could send an orbital space station, the landing vehicle and the Mars ground habitats by ion drive (semi-trucks) and then follow up with the astronauts (in the interstellar equivalent of a Ferrari)

      • I like some ideas of the private sector for faster drives with low power/fuel consumption. Wouldn’t be surprised if the space Lamborghini has a big Virgin Galactic on the side and a box with voice recording of Branson saying “I told ya”. I like the new theory about tapping dark energy for energy generation and possible warp drives. That way we make one trip to take the space station, land base, vehicles, the guys and maybe a Kuratas along (google this, you gonna love it). I like the ion drives if they get more push and only for 3d space maneuver (I love that in combat space simulators).

        It’s much better to have all developed here for a all at once mission, otherwise we’ll take too long to claim real estate there.

      • I hope you’re right… I have my doubts about the viability of human deep space exploration, at least until some new energy source comes online

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