Saturday, October 1, 2016

One Way Death Trip To Mars Compliments of Elon Musk? No Thanks!

Mars' surface as it might appear to passengers on Elon Musk's space ship - if they last that long.

It seems too many want to get to Mars in a hurry, and safety systems be damned. I noted three years ago the “Inspiration Mars” nonsense  which would cover 150 million miles and take 501 days overall to do a brief Mars "flyby".  Then there was "Mars One" through which nearly 200,000 volunteers from around the world signed up to "land on Mars and colonize it."  That has since been whittled to four, and meanwhile a robot prelim space craft is slated for launch in 2018, and that  mission aims to pave the way for the final volunteer crew by testing technology they will need should they reach the red planet in good enough shape to start the first human space colony. But the odds are they won't They will likely arrive DOA - if they get there in one piece at all - by virtue of receiving nearly the same amount of radiation as those 5 km from the Hiroshima atomic blast.

Now, we have wannabe commercial space pioneer Elon Musk, who recently declared in a speech ( at the International Astronautical Congress) entitled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species”,  that his goal was to “make Mars seem possible. To make it seem like it’s something we can do in our lifetimes. That you can go.” Musk, not meek about his ambitions, showed a video of his imagined Mars  rocket taking off from the Kennedy Space Center with 100 people on board, refueling in orbit and then landing on the surface of Mars. The audience fairly gasped at such a wondrous sight when NASA wasn't making similar plans until the 2030s.

By contrast, Musk's vision featured an ambitious timeline, starting with the first launch of an unmanned craft as soon as 2018, then the first paid passengers making their way to the Red Planet by 2024-25.  When asked if he himself would make the trip, he said "I'd have to get all my plans for succession in order first."  Just as well, because it's doubtful anyone would survive that trip any more than the Mars One journey.

Musk's design imagines a Mars rocket a towering 400-feet tall, with lots more thrust  than the Saturn V that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon. He acknowledged the immense, if quixotic, challenge he was undertaking would begin not just with creating a spacecraft that could keep dozens of humans alive for extended periods but with producing rocket fuel from the resources on Mars. And he acknowledged the difficulties of lowering the cost of the flights from $10 billion a person to $200,000 or less, in part by reusing rockets to fly repeat missions ferrying lots of people.

Now, try to imagine this, paying $10b each for a one way death trip. As one late night comic put it: "What better way than this to get rid of the billionaires!"

Let's also bear in mind that currently Musk’s Falcon 9 rocket is grounded, after blowing up for a second time. The maiden flight of its more powerful Falcon Heavy has been delayed again and again. I ask in all seriousness, would you really trust this guy to get you to Mars in one piece?

Musk, like Bas Lansdorp, CEO of MARS One, is also vastly understating the costs,, which he estimates at maybe $100b - say for 10 billionaires to take the first trip at $10b each. But as I've previously noted the more likely price of a first manned trip is $1 trillion - in today's dollars, and probably at least $1.4 trillion by the time the first ship is ready to launch in 8 years. That math would require at least 140 billionaires ready to launch to the Red Planet. I don't think there are that many who'd pay for a death ticket no matter how exciting Musk makes it. They want to remain here on good old planet Earth to see how many more hedge funds they can control, and how many resources they can consume for themselves.

Less clear is how SpaceX would pay to get to even that point. Musk did say he would “make the biggest contribution I can” of his own wealth, and at one point he joked that the company might have to use Kickstarter, the online fundraising platform, to raise money. Somehow, I don't think that would work for a project of this kind. Apart from that and outside of a few ambiguous technical details of the spacecraft he offered few specifics on how this monster ship would get built, where and what propulsion system might be used.

Nor did he address the hazards of radiation exposure for such a voyage- which might be just as well. To be clear, the radiation issue isn't necessarily a "show stopper" - but it means the proposed craft would need adequate shielding, and that means more money. Is $1 trillion too low then? Probably! That low figure gets you the basic "no frills"  craft to get there, but the highest probability of arriving as a corpse.

Reference can be made to a paper entitled  'Measurements of Energetic Particle Radiation in Transit to Mars on the Mars Science Laboratory" .  It revealed that the spacecraft containing the Curiosity Rover for its 253-day, 350-million-mile (563 million km) trip to Mars, indicated a radiation dose equivalent for even the shortest round-trip with current propulsion systems and comparable shielding at 0.66 Sievert (Sv) in a range of plus or minus 0.12 Sv.  NASA lifetime astronaut limits are between 0.6 and 1.2Sv, depending on sex and age. So that's at best more than half a career of radiation exposure, even disregarding time spent on the surface, or indeed on any preparatory missions.

The takeway? Without radical progress in reducing the duration of the Mars journey and breakthroughs in increasing the radiation shielding of craft, suits and other habitats, human trips to Mars will likely be ruled out by NASA for exposing astronauts to more than a three per cent increase - such as stipulated in "Risk of Exposure-Induced Death for Fatal Cancer", a threshold set by a working group panel of radiation specialists in the aftermath of Hiroshima

Make no mistake that getting to Mars is exceedingly difficult. On average, it’s 140 million miles from Earth, though the planets do come to within about 35 million miles of each other every 26 months.  But that doesn't mean you can make a 35 m mile direct trip from Earth to Mars. From the laws of celestial mechanics and Newtonian dynamics you still need to plot a long, curving arc or trajectory. Even under the best circumstances it would take months to get there, being exposed to radiation levels unheard of on Earth.

Musk claims SpaceX could do it in 80 days and eventually in 30, but I doubt it, and I'd have to see the rocket design and trajectory - as well as source of propulsion first.

As I also previously noted, referencing radiation levels,  the deep space environment can also be tremendously harsh on ordinary space faring. Of the 43 robotic missions to Mars, including flybys, attempted by four different countries, only 18 have been total successes. You can be sure with any humans aboard that percentage would be lower, maybe even zero.

Musk - conveniently -  didn’t address the explosion that blew up one of his rockets earlier this month. He has previously said the incident, which occurred while the rocket was being fueled ahead of an engine test firing, was the most “difficult and complex” the company has ever faced. This follows another Falcon 9 failure last year, when it blew up a couple minutes into flight.

It would be tremendous if a bunch billionaires - starting with Donald Trump after he loses this election  took Musk up on his offer to get them to Mars. But I somehow doubt even Trump is dumb enough to do it.

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