Mars One and Death

marsplanetMars One is a project to start colonizing Mars funded by a reality TV show of the volunteers who go. It looks quite serious, and they seem to have a reasonable technical plan for getting four astronauts to the surface of Mars with enough supplies and equipment to survive for an indefinite period going forward. The plan would be for more volunteers to arrive at the rate of four every two years, but this is to add to the population, not to rotate them back out.

The front-loaded price tag looks to be in the neighborhood of $6 billion USD, which they are trying to raise privately. Part of me wants to vent in frustration that if only NASA and the US Congress had the balls to step and fund something like this, it would be a done deal, but that’s a rant for another time. Perhaps the biggest challenge Mars One faces is not the technical problems but the financial one of raising that much money before much of any television revenue materializes. I wish them luck.

headstoneMostly, though, I want to talk about death, because that’s where these guys are headed. They make no bones about it, but this is a one-way ticket. I don’t think that they’re going to perish en route or in their first week, but the very real fact is that these volunteers are going to die on Mars. There is no return-flight on the horizon. This is nothing all that new in human history. There have been plenty of cases where colonists sailed off to the wilderness, fully intent on never returning, but in today’s world of jet travel, we’ve gotten away from that thinking.

But how soon will they die? Hopefully, they will a long time there, but conditions will be harsh, and simple activities will be fairly dangerous. I think there is a better than 50-50 chance that all four colonists would make it through the first two years. At that point, the next batch of colonists will arrive, and more construction will ensue for the next batch to arrive another two years into the future. However, if one of them dies before that second batch arrives, I worry that the project will falter. I’m sure they worry as well, and they seem to be doing everything they can to make those first two years as safe as possible with redundant systems.

Still, in the long run, there may be health problems associated with low gravity. Also, between the trip and years spent under Mars’ thin atmosphere, radiation will increase the risk of cancer. Furthermore, the limited food supply may cause other health issues. It seems reasonable to think that a colonist’s remaining life expectancy on Mars might be half of that on Earth. A fifty-year-old who thought he had another thirty years left to him might only get fifteen. A twenty-year-old hoping to last until eighty might be dead at fifty. But then, a seventy-year-old might only be trading away five years of life-expectancy.

So, is it worth it? Obviously that’s a question for each individual, and for the 80,000 or so who have already signed up, the answer appears to be yes. I suspect the selection criteria is going to aim for healthy people in their thirties to fifties. They have good life experience, and at that age, it seems less likely that their decision to go would be based on a youthful whim. Add another eight years of training, and we’re talking about sending people in their forties to sixties. They might only be trading away ten to twenty years.

For some, it would be worth it just to have the experience of living on Mars. I confess that if my life had gone another direction and left me without my wife, children, and other close friends, it would be seriously tempting. I’m a lifelong SF geek, and the idea of waking up every morning on another planet is serious wish-fulfillment territory. I might trade a decade of life for such an experience.

moonwalkingFor others, there might be a little lure for fame. Certainly with the reality TV show funding the ongoing operations, there will be a lot of fame back on Earth, but there is also the compelling allure of a place in the history books. They will be up there with Columbus and Neil Armstrong in the history books. Martian high schools will someday be named after them. Historians will perpetually debate the critical airlock decision of 2027. For some people, that is essentially their immortality, and an early death on the mortal plane is worth it.

But for some special few, I think they will want to do simply to push humanity into the heavens. They won’t care about Earth-side opinions. They won’t care if their name is spelled right in the history books. They’ll care that we got out there and someday, went even further. Hopefully, they’ll die decades from now when people are planning the tentative robotic exploration of some Earthlike exoplanets orbiting other stars. They will slip gently into the night, comforted by the knowledge that humanity won’t.

If I had my pick, these are the ones I would send up first.

Review: Saving Mars, by Cidney Swanson

Saving Mars is the first book in a trilogy (or series) of books about a teenage pilot from Mars and her brother. I was mostly checking this out for my daughter, because she is nuts about Mars, and the brother in question is a reasonably high-functioning autistic. Likewise, my daughter’s brothers are autistic. On that point, I will probably recommend it to her around age thirteen or fourteen. (She’s nine now.)

However, it didn’t work that well for me as an adult. I have certainly enjoyed some YA fiction, but this one only did so-so. Too many details were glossed over for my taste, and I found a number of decisions (made by both youngsters and adults) to be poorly thought out. While I can say that’s something to be expected amongst the adolescent, some of these pushed my willing suspension of disbelief, especially the ones made by the adults. This probably would not have bothered me had I read it as a young adult myself, but looking at it with adult eyes it bothered me.

I will probably continue to read the series – after all it’s high-adventure and solar-system politics – but I really do hope the characters get smarter in the later books.

Review: Marsbound, by Joe Haldeman

I picked this one at random from a pile of samples and was totally sucked in. It’s a first person narrative of an eighteen year old girl who emigrates to Mars with her family in one of the first waves of colonists/explorers and then actually finds martians… sort of.

The science is pretty good, even for the martians (hence the “sort of”), and it was a lot of that minutiae that drew me in. No, it’s not page after page of technical exposition. Rather, it shows a lot of the “boring” day to day business of riding a space elevator up to an interplanetary ship, making the trip across the void, landing, and living in the harsh conditions of another planet. I suppose I liked it for many of the same reasons I enjoyed the daily details of Nathan Lowell’s Solar Clipper series, i.e. it made the fantastic life of space travel feel real without making it mundane. By the time we got to the “martians”, I was completely drawn into her personal world.

This book also comes close to one of my favorite kinds of conflict, where the bad guy isn’t really a bad guy, just that he is making decisions from his own values, and those decisions and actions end up conflicting with our hero’s goals. There are two bad guys in this. The first is a local administrator who is doing her best to protect the Mars outpost and humanity at large and who makes some bad calls in the process. The second is a distant group that is acting to protect itself at any cost with no apologies to those who get in the way.

In the end, heroes are heroic, bad guys are thwarted, and sacrifices are noble. It finishes with a semi-open happy ending, and I believe there are at least two sequels, so I may be looking at those soon.

Kickstarter for Mars?

I know this sound ridiculous on the surface, but have we reached the point where someone should be doing a Kickstarter project for a manned mission to Mars? The NASA budget continues to limp along at about half the inflation-adjusted size of the 1966 Apollo peak. Proposals for manned missions to Mars keep getting cancelled and reproposed, but they are always far enough down the road that it’s a future president who will have to come up with the funds. Inside Washington circles, it seems like NASA is the unloved dog that is still too cute for anyone to put down.

Yet outside of Washington, NASA and some of the private space ventures are quite popular. In national polls, NASA gets approval ratings in the 55-75% range, compared to 30% for the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, Congress has been struggling beneath 20% for over four years. Politicians would kill for NASA’s numbers – especially right now after Curiosity’s successful Mars landing – and yet the only thing they’re killing is NASA’s budget.

So, maybe it’s time to bypass the politicians altogether and raise the money privately.

Let’s talk numbers. NASA’s budget for 2012 is $17.7 billion (USD). Worldwide, government space agencies are spending about $27.5 billion, of which about $10 billion is for manned flight. That’s a lot, but it’s not much compared to the US or global economies.

That’s how much we’re spending now for a modest amount of manned activity in low Earth orbit. What about going to Mars? How much will that cost? Well, the problem is that no one really knows for sure, but estimates range from the fantastically low $4 billion to the unfundable $1 trillion. Other numbers from recent NASA estimates have put it in the $40-60 billion range, with the cost to be spread over ten years.

Which numbers should we believe? Well, past space projects (and technology projects in general) lead me to believe that it won’t cost nearly as much as the initial high-end estimates. Aerospace engineers are smart guys – like rocket-scientist smart – and they tend to figure stuff out once they put their minds to it. So, I’m willing to throw out the trillion dollar estimate as that of a pessimist who is predisposed against the idea.

But on the other hand, it’s never quite as simple as you think it’s going to be, and cost overruns add up, so whatever we think it’s going to be when we lay down the initial specs, we can count on that cost to go up by 50% to 100%. I think that pretty much blows the $4 billion estimate out of the water.

But somewhere in between, say $50-100 billion, spread over ten years… that seems quite reasonable. It’s also a number on par with what we’re currently spending on manned space missions worldwide, i.e. that earlier $10 billion. On the one hand, you could say we’re already spending that and not getting to Mars, but we are getting something for it. It’s also a measure that there is an aerospace industry ready to absorb that kind of money and do something with it.

Ok, anyone got $100 billion to spare? Well I don’t, but I’ve easily got $100 I’d throw at this. Heck, I’d throw $100 at it every year for ten years. I mean, really, $100 is about the cost of taking my wife out to dinner and a movie (plus the babysitter). To see us put people on Mars in the next decade, I’d gladly give up a date like that once per year.

But how many people are like me that way? Well, if everyone in America felt the same, that would yield a budget of $30 billion annually. Well, let’s say half that because, after all, my wife is part of that $100 date. Still, that’s $15 billion. But not everyone in America is as pro-NASA as I am. Even with a 66% approval rating, that’s a third of the people who don’t like it. So that knocks us down to $10 billion per year, which is about on target.

Of course, it’s easy to say you like NASA, but parting with Mr. Franklin may be a little harder, so perhaps it’s unrealistic of me to think that 66% of Americans would toss their hard earned cash into such an effort, but this doesn’t have to be done by NASA. With private enterprises like SpaceX building and launching their own vehicles like the Dragon capsule, this could conceivably be an entirely private venture, funded by individuals and corporations across the globe. And for that matter, while many people would only drop in their pocket change, others would pony up for more.

Logistically, it would have to be funded and engineered in stages. That would probably slow things down from ten years to fifteen or twenty, but it would be one of the best ways to build credibility. At each stage we would learn more about the shape of the problem and refine the designs for the next stages.

Certainly, we are going to learn a lot from the Curiosity mission, particularly whether or not there is accessible water in the Martian soil. That mission cost has been estimated at $2.5 billion, or about $8 per US citizen. Given how excited everyone is about it, I think we got our $8 value from just watching the landing.

And I think that kind of thing would be key to ramping up the funding momentum. With each success building towards the ultimate manned missions, excitement would build, and that would drive the funding. More rovers, sample return missions, test runs of new drive systems, all could be played for the kind of buzz we’ve seen this week, and the funding for future missions could be timed to tie into that.

Visible successes – and yes, even tragic missteps – would make us all feel like we’re part of it along the way, so when we see that first boot print on Martian soil, we could all say, “I made that happen.”

On the other hand, it might be too much to ask. The only other secular funding effort on this scale is the American political process, and $10 billion is more than is raised/spent even in a presidential election year. But I’d like to think we could get even more excited about going to Mars than prevailing over the hippie/redneck across the street.

Why Mars?

I confess I wrote most of this on Sunday several hours before the Curiosity lander either landed successfully on Mars or left an SUV-sized crater. [Update: Success!] Obviously I’m hoping for the former [YAY!], but why all this effort for Mars and not, for example, Venus or Jupiter?

First, let me lay out all those legitimate scientific reasons. Mars is much more like Earth than the other planets in our solar system, and studying Mars can tell us a few new things about the Earth, its climate, and its history. Also, Mars shows signs of having once had liquid water on its surface, and that means there is the possibility that Mars might have once harbored microbial life – and it still might. Finding another sample of life would teach us a lot about the possibilities of life and organic chemistry, even if it’s to teach us that Martian life came from Earth or vice versa.

So yeah, we go to Mars in hopes of learning things to help us on Earth. Yada, yada, yada. It’s all legitimate, and it can probably justify the price tag. But that’s not why I care.

Curiosity being lowered from its rocket packIn my lifetime, Mars has gone from being a light in the sky to being a place. As corny as it sounds, it has become the new frontier, that faraway land across the sea, and I feel a definite itch to go see it. What things could I see that no one has seen before? What could I build there? Who else would I meet on such an exciting journey? What mark would I leave on such a world?

Yeah, I know… it’s a lot of romantic claptrap, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. I don’t know if it’s simply because I’m a lifelong SF geek, or if it’s some deep genetic wanderlust. Either way, it’s a tangible draw, and I find that it ranks high on the scale of things that fulfill my life.

Do I think I’m going? No. I admit I still hold out some hope that I might make it into orbit as a tourist someday, but that’s about it for me personally. However, I do hope to see a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime. It would be even better to see some kind of permanent settlement there, but I don’t see that as a realistic possibility in the next 40-50 years. I’m not saying I’d vote against it – far from it – but I don’t expect to see it.

In the long term, I’d like to think there will be a long term effort to colonize Mars and terraform it. That would teach us a lot about managing a climate – again, useful here on Earth. It would also give our species some survival insurance that the dinosaurs lacked. And finally, I think it would teach us a lot of we’ll need to know if we’re ever going to make the leap past our solar neighborhood.

Specifically, living on Mars would teach us how to keep people alive and healthy for long-duration space flight. It would teach us how to built shelter on inhospitable worlds using local materials. We would learn how to actually terraform instead of merely bandying about the notion that it should be possible. And we’ll also find out just how Earth-like we need to make a planet to successfully life there.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll find out that Mars just isn’t good enough to live on. Maybe it will be too cold. Maybe poor magnetic field will let us fry in solar radiation. Maybe its low gravity will cause us endless health problems. But maybe we can solve those issues.

But in the here and now, I’m looking forward to Curiosity’s mission and exploring Mars vicariously through it.

Curiosity sees its shadow on Mars.

Apollo Made Science Cool

Today is the 43rd anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon. There’s nothing magic about the number 43, but it’s the first time it’s rolled around since I started my blog. Apparently, that’s enough for me to get my soapbox out. So, this is me, getting up on that soapbox:

The space race, from Mercury through Apollo, made science cool. It wasn’t all white-coats, beakers, and blackboards. It was fiery rockets going to fantastic places. It was making maps and looking over the horizon. Fill up that extra oxygen tank, Sparky, because we’re heading out in the morning!

Now science seems to be about smaller computers, cosmological models, new materials, and better batteries. Even something as cool as the discovery of the Higgs boson fails to connect with the common man. More to the point, it fails to connect with the common kid.

I was born in 1967, and while I don’t remember it, I’m told I was on my daddy’s knee when Neil Armstrong took that one small step. My older brother remembers more of the space race, but I still grew up knowing that men were going up to the moon and doing stuff there.

I watched the final return from Spacelab on my grandmother’s TV, and I saw the launch of Viking II from the balcony of a Florida motel. And in a curator-curdling act, I stretched my little arm past the velvet rope and touched the Apollo 11 capsule in the Smithsonian. This was not some vague extrapolation of the Standard Model of particle physics. It was something I experienced in a very real and visceral way.

So, of course, I wanted to be an astronaut. At the age of seven, I did not really know what that entailed, but I knew that all this stuff about going into space required scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. So studies of English, social studies, and other soft stuff fell by the wayside as I pushed myself into whatever I could find that was at least a little scientific.

Ultimately, I found my proficiency for math and computer programming, and while I never even tried for a job at NASA, I did end up writing software used to design many of the vehicles that have been launched into space in the last two decades. It was also used to design bridges, houses, planes, and computers, but it was not the notion of writing useful design software that sparked my interest as a kid. It was the bold adventure of heading off into space. Even now, I hold out some tiny hope that I might someday make it at least into orbit on some tourism venture.

People debate about the costs and benefits of the old space race. The cost blew through all estimates, and the quoted benefits are often limited to such mundane things as velcro and tang. A deeper look adds advances to such fields as computers, telecommunications, and material sciences, but even with those we face the argument that we could have achieved those advances with earth-bound research initiatives at a fraction of the cost.

But what people rarely talk about is that going to the moon made science cool to millions of kids like me. My story of spaceflight inspiration is hardly unique in my generation, and while only a fraction of us went on into the so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), a lot of us did. I haven’t been able to lay my hands on the actual numbers, but I’ve seen a few graphs to suggest that the percentage of US bachelor degrees in STEM fields peaked in the mid-80’s and has been in decline ever since. In other words, that surge in the percentage of STEM graduates was from that generation of kids who grew up watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

These days, there is a lot of talk about increasing the number of STEM graduates here in the US. We’re told we need it to remain competitive in the global economy. Proposals abound on how to fix this, and they’re all about education reform, industry involvement, and tuition incentives.

Yet I haven’t heard a single proposal about inspiration. No one is talking about lighting that fire to make kids want to explore science in the first place. That’s not a decision we make when graduating high school. It’s not even a decision we make when we’re going into high school. I think that decision is made somewhere deep inside when we’re seven or eight years old. It lights a fuse inside, and it keeps us going until we’re blowing up chemistry labs and crashing mom’s computer.

Meanwhile, humans heading out past Earth’s orbit has become something we talk about with nostalgia. Kids don’t see it happening on TV. It’s in old movies with retro music and in conversations between adults that begin with “Remember when…” The only time politicians talk about renewing manned exploration of the heavens, it’s always an initiative to bear fruit in eight to twelve years, i.e. long after we’ve forgotten the promise and when it has become the next guy’s problem.

So, here’s my idea. Yes, do what we can to make science education better, but do something to spark that fire in little kids. This is not a solution for boosting STEM graduates in ten years. It’s probably won’t even help much in fifteen or twenty years. But if we step up and send people to Mars in ten years, it would produce a generation of scientists that would put my own generation to shame.

If you want more scientists, do something to make science cool again. Go to Mars and do more than leave a boot print.