Mars has always been Shangri-La for space buffs. Two new private missions show that its lure is as strong as ever
ON JULY 20th 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, it capped half a century of extraordinary progress in aviation. In the six and a half decades since the Wright brothers’ Flyer had staggered into the air near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, aeroplanes had shrunk the world, revolutionised warfare and created the modern travel industry. Technical records for altitude, speed and endurance had fallen helter-skelter.
For that reason, many of those watching the two astronauts on their black-and-white televisions could have been forgiven for thinking that going to the Moon was simply the first step in a human expansion into the solar system. Indeed, that had long been the dream of the space buffs who made the Moon missions possible. Wernher von Braun, the genius who designed the Saturn V Moon rockets—and who had been planning Mars expeditions since the publication, in 1948, of his book “Das Marsprojekt”—pitched a crewed Mars mission to then-President Richard Nixon soon after Armstrong and Dr Aldrin landed.
But it was not to be. The Apollo Moon programme was shut down early, and the world’s astronauts have spent the past 41 years pootling around in low-Earth orbit. Now, though, spurred by the rise of the buccaneering, private-sector “New Space” industry, which is offering access to the cosmos at prices far lower than government-backed rockets can manage, the old dream is enjoying a resurgence. Elon Musk, whose rocket firm SpaceX already flies cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), makes no secret of his Martian ambitions. Two privately run organisations in particular—Inspiration Mars, brainchild of Dennis Tito, an American tycoon who became the world’s first space tourist in 2001, and Mars One, run by Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur—have announced plans to send people to Mars without relying on the resources of a state.
Mr Lansdorp admits that, on hearing about his plans, people’s first response is that he must be crazy. But both he and Mr Tito (who started his career as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL, in Pasadena, which runs NASA’s unmanned Mars missions) insist they are serious. Technical studies have been done, astronaut applications are being processed and deals are being signed with the firms that will build the spacecraft.
Both men are motivated by frustration with government efforts, which have gone around in circles—and not orbital ones—for decades. It is the stated policy of Barack Obama’s government to send a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s. But given the recent history of NASA as a political football (the George Bushes senior and junior both proposed similar missions that went nowhere), and given looming cuts to its budget, few think such a mission will actually happen. As Mr Tito put it when he announced Inspiration Mars: “the way we’re going, we’ll never get started.”
Can-do talk aside, there are good reasons for scepticism. Sending people to Mars will be extremely difficult; far harder than sending them to the Moon. For one thing, Mars is much farther away. The Apollo missions took three days to get there, but flight times to Mars are measured in months. That would require an utterly reliable spacecraft. The vast distance imposes a communication delay, too. Whereas the Apollo astronauts could talk to their ground-based controllers more or less in real time, Martian astronauts would face delays of up to 40 minutes between asking a question and getting an answer.
And spending months in deep space would expose a crew to a chunky dose of radiation. Information from the Curiosity rover’s flight to Mars, just published in Science, suggests a crew could expect a radiation dose close to the maximum lifetime limit for NASA’s astronauts. If the sun were to have one of its regular temper tantrums, known as coronal mass ejections, which produce huge bursts of ionising radiation, that limit might be far exceeded.
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