Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why Can't We Go To Mars By 2025?

Mars as it might appear during flyby on August 20, 2018 for the 'Inspiration Mars' couple, before heading back to Earth. (From European Space Agency)

 No, I'm not talking about the much ballyhooed plan  by a consortium of private space specialists- backed by a tycoon- to send a ‘bare bones’ mission to Mars in four years. This would be a “no frills” 16 month flyby journey that will feature a husband and wife team, given such would more likely be able to handle being cooped up for well over a year in a cabin half the size of an RV.

The planned Mars mission would cover 150 million miles and take 501 days overall. While the Apollo 8 crew actually orbited the Moon for 20 hours before returning, the Mars couple will only do a brief Mars "flyby" (since their trajectory is based on the 'sling shot' effect'), lasting maybe an hour if that, before proceeding on their long voyage home. In other words,  enduring 500 -plus days of being cooped up in a large closet-sized space for a reward of only about an hour of actually seeing the Red Planet, and that from a spacecraft a hundred miles up.

Nor am I referring to the  Mars One project whereby a  robot prelim space craft is slated for launch in 2018, and that  mission aims to pave the way for the final volunteer crew of 4 to land on the Red Planet by 2022 by testing technology they will need should  they reach the red planet in good enough shape to start the first human space colony. (Translation: They haven't yet croaked from receiving nearly the same amount of radiation as those 5 km from the Hiroshima atomic blast.)

What I am about here is a real, properly paid for Mars project, with the multiple safety redundancies built into it, as they were for the Apollo Moon project. In other words, this would be so mammoth that it would require government, (NASA) mustering the resources to make it possible. Hence, it would cost much more than the two cheapo projects cited above, more likely in the vicinity of hundreds of billions of dollars.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human space exploration, recently told of the need to “break the paradigm” of current funding, adding. “We cannot do it at the same budget level we’re at today. It’s just not going to work.”

Indeed, and it is downright, damned pathetic given how much we piss on Afghanistan in a useless holding pattern of futility every month. What we've already pissed down the toilet in Afghanistan could have easily funded a proper Mars' program and had us well on the way to making a manned landing by 2025 or possibly 2020.

Meanwhile, former astronaut and NASA honcho Charles Bolden said he would “get down on my hands and knees and beg and plead” with Congress to support human space exploration.  But the point is, he shouldn't have to! It ought to be clear to all but the most hide bound and stupid that we can't remain on this planet forever, if we value species' survival.

It was, in fact,  science writer Isaac Asimov- in his Barbados lecture at Queen’s Park Theater in 1975

  who said (tape recorded at time):

“Manned space exploration is not an option or a luxury. No sane intelligent species in the cosmos willingly leaves all its ‘eggs’ in one basket, in this case on one planet. Any large asteroid, remember, could take us out with one strike. This could happen in 50 years or in 5,000 or 500,000. It doesn’t matter when, it will be the end of humanity if we choose to never explore and disperse ourselves….for our own protection”

The first time I heard this it made eminent sense, and it does so now. It is hubris of the first order to believe that we can just “scotch” on this Earth, and never fret that we face no threats of extinction. A Torino-scale 10 asteroid, with a size on the order of just a quarter the asteroid Ceres would utterly destroy the human species and leave not a trace. Within the hour or so of its major interaction, all life on Earth would cease. The utter folly of never having extended ourselves to locate an alternate abode would become quite evident. But by then it would be way too late!

Even a Torino-9 asteroid would render most human life extinct as a result of the effects of a nuclear winter scenario: so many trillions of dust hurled into the atmosphere from the obliterating impact that sunlight would be reduced and a suffocating winter lasting decades ensue – with death of most plant life.

With that extirpation, any remaining human life would certainly follow.

Thus, the appeal to robot  space craft (unmanned) alternatives, hence the case made, i.e. that NASA can arguably do more with unmanned exploration since crafts are lighter and easier to land, and there are no worries about life support, and there is no need for a return trip.

All well and good, but when a Torino 9 or 10 event is bearing down on you and you haven't done duck squat to find even one livable colony for humans, then it's time to say 'Hasta la vista!'  Your days are numbered.

Sadly, the idiots who yap about the need for robot craft  instead don't get that it isn't a matter of "too little money" for budgets but rather too much money wasted on military bullshit.  Consider just the money squandered on Iraq and Afghanistan - both wars of choice in which no direct U.S. security was involved. The estimate for these is $4 TRILLION.   Four fucking TRILLION!

Just $1 trillion could have provided enough for:

- A 'Cadillac' deluxe mission to Mars with all the niceties (driven by ion propulsion)

- Enough supplies to set up a base for further missions

- Enough for additional robot exploration and probes to the outer solar system

- A solar optical telescope with high resolution

The fact we have no manned space program and have to rely on the Russians  (we can't even do that any more after the Obama-ites pissed them off with trade sanctions etc.) and a bunch of wannabe commercial space jockeys (e.g. at Space X) has been a matter of choice. The choice that we as a nation would rather be a military empire than an explorer of new worlds - which latter obviously requires vastly more vision and intelligence.

The problem is that all military empires come to an end, while explorer nations are dynamic and their investments in space, for example, find many other applications which increase and enhance their economic health - as opposed to sapping it.  The usual canard-laden argument trotted out is "there's no money for manned space efforts and just look at our debt" etc.  But that's rife with holes you could drive ten Mack trucks through, namely that the major proportion of debt has been incurred by wars of choice and not paying for them.  Hell, Iraq alone is estimated to cost us $3 trillion while Afghanistan could easily reach $2 trillion if we are actually stupid enough to remain until 2024.. (And recall Bush Jr. launched both without even raising taxes, which was the usual course of action for previous Presidents if they regarded what they were doing as waging real wars..)

As I've noted previously, there's absolutely NO reason this nation couldn't have had a viable manned space program (with Mars as the goal), while preserving Social Security and Medicare, and enabling minimal interest student loans, plus a terrific infrastructure repair program - if we'd made alternate choices.  Those choices, however, would've entailed not sticking our beaks into business and events around the world and acting as Cop of the world. (What JFK called the mindset of Pax Americana, or trying to enforce the peace by use of American weapons of war.)

JFK understood, as few presidents since (with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter) that a nation cannot squander its resources on wars or building a far flung military empire, and also expect to invest in its own people and domestic infrastructure and future. He tried his best to divert the existing trend to make war for the sake of it (according to the document NSC-68) but paid the ultimate price for his courage.

Thomas Friedman, who I've usually derided as a Neoliberal tool and hack, did get one thing right when he wrote in his NY Times column two weeks ago: "We cannot expect to do nation building in other countries if we can't first do nation building in our own".   His point being that it's preposterous to help 'build' other nations when our own is falling into rack and ruin as our people struggle for crumbs in a depleted resource-economic environment.

Can we do one thing to partially reverse the trend to self-destruction? Perhaps the most significant is to put away our false pride and make peace with the Russians, to enable mutual cooperation to continue on the International Space Station. (See previous post)  This is no exaggeration, but the future survival of Home Sapiens may well depend on it.

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