Wednesday, February 16, 2011

One-Way Mission to Mars - Kumbaya Fail

In this fourth part of my critique of a recently proposed one-way mission to Mars I address whether a kick-start colonization of Mars can be justified on political grounds. My third post disputes whether such a colony is either a safe or a cost-effective way to pursue important scientific goals. You can find the introduction to the series here.

In their November 2010 paper in the Journal of Cosmology, along with other reasons for pursuing an expedited one-way mission to Mars, Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies assert that
establishing a permanent multicultural and multinational human presence on another world would have a major beneficial political and social implications for Earth, and serve as a strong unifying and uplifting theme for all humanity.
It is hard to see how they derive confidence in such a claim.

Independence Day
movie poster
Space and space missions are a standard of science fiction when it comes to creating story lines that unite humanity in spite of centuries-old divisions. This unification is often accomplished most efficiently when planet Earth is in imminent danger of being destroyed by an asteroid impact or being conquered by an alien armada.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than at the climax of the 1996 movie Independence Day, where the American president, played by Bill Pullman, delivers a speech that rallies his troops for a last-ditch airborne counterattack on an invading force, with identical calls to arms being enacted simultaneously around the globe by people of all races and all creeds and all colors, apparently.

Earthrise, December 1968
I came of age during the the Apollo program and, as a 14-year old, watched enraptured as Neil Armstrong placed his booted foot on lunar soil. Old enough to appreciate what this meant as a national achievement and as an engineering tour de force, I was also old enough to be aware of the promise that it offered to be a unifying force for "all mankind", one beautifully anticipated in the earthrise Christmas Eve image taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8 less than a year before.

Although that day in July 1969 was celebrated the world over, the moon landings themselves failed to have any long-term impact as far as bringing people closer together. The Cold War and its proxy conflicts raged on, indifferent to these wondrous technological achievements.

International Space Station from
the Space Shuttle Atlantis
Another example of an unmet promise of political uplift offered by a costly space mission, this one closer to home, is that embodied by the International Space Station (ISS). Touted as a permanent multicultural and multinational human presence in low-earth orbit, it, too, was to provide Earth-bound humans with a transcendent unifying theme.

Yet, resplendent, orbiting above the planet at an altitude of 350 km (220 miles), it goes largely unnoticed by the world below. This is not to say that the Space Station has not called into being a remarkable intergovernmental collaboration on an unprecedented scale, but to note that, although an engineering triumph, it has resulted in few if any discernible "major beneficial political and social implications" of the type advertised by the one-way Mars mission proposal. If the tepid public reaction to the ISS is any indication, then it's not clear that such expectations should weigh in favorably in our evaluation of Schulze-Makuch and Davies's scheme to establish a human settlement on Mars post haste.

As with other motivations for the proposed expedited colonization of Mars - that it serve as a science outpost and as a lifeboat for humanity - rational analysis demands that we consider how alternative approaches compare as far as promoting a more positive political and social climate here on Earth. In other words, given that a one-way mission would cost hundreds of billions of dollars or more, how might similar - or even significantly smaller sums - be spent to foster feelings of union and brotherhood.

Jimmy Carter tries to comfort a 6-year-old
at Savelugu (Ghana) Hospital as a
Carter Center technical assistant dresses
her painful Guinea worm wound.
Although little can be done directly to bridge the divides of malignant ideologies, religious fanaticism and misguided nationalism that separate us, it has been long understood the alleviation of much of human suffering is within our grasp and that the result of doing so would yield unquestionable major political and social benefits. An example of an immediately attainable objective would be the eradication of endemic diseases such as guinea worm. A more ambitious challenge would be to commit to insure that every person on the planet is provided with adequate daily nutrition as well as access to a reliable source of drinking water.

U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
with a $110 million per unit cost
Without a doubt, goals such as these are politically daunting, but they are technically and economically feasible, particularly if countries like the United States expand their vision of international security - and with it the application of their annual one trillion dollars of "defense" spending - to encompass important non-military threats to world order and human well-being. Indeed, mobilizing the nations of the planet to mitigate the damage anticipated as a result of disruptive climate change this century, provides a ready-made unifying goal for humanity, one which we are morally obligated to address and, to the extent that we prevail in our efforts, one which could both unite and ennoble us.

Suffice it to say, we don't need to go shopping around for extraterrestrial projects, such as an ill-considered one-way mission to Mars, in order to concoct challenges to inspire and unify us, when working in broad international coalitions against terrestrial scourges, such as disease, hunger, global warming, not only would generate a much greater sense of unity and common purpose, but also would offer desperately needed material advances to billions of people here on Earth.

Part 5: One-Way Mission to Mars - Ethics Fail

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Friday, February 4, 2011

One-Way Mission to Mars - Science Fail

In this third post of a series which criticizes a recently proposed one-way mission to Mars, I address whether a kick-start colonization of Mars can be justified on scientific grounds.  My second post disputes whether such a colony is a cost-effective way to insure the survival of our species.  You can find the introduction to the series here.

Martian avalanche and debris falls captured
by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
in 2008
A manned base for scientific research?
Without a doubt the the possibility of life on Mars existing today or in its distant past, is a scientific question of the highest order, worthy in my opinion of the significant expenditure of our treasure, although not, carelessly, of our blood.

Accordingly, I find myself in agreement with Schulze-Makuch and Davies when they claim in their Journal of Cosmology paper in November,
a scientific facility on Mars might therefore be a unique opportunity to study an alien life form and a second evolutionary record, and to develop novel biotechnology therefrom.
I strongly disagree, though, with whether such a facility need be - or even should be - manned by human scientists, at least anytime soon.  Indeed, a case can be made that far more science could be gleaned at far less expense by factoring human participants out of the equation for any early Mars mission planning.

Robots everywhere, 24.65/7 instead?
In the past dozen years or so we have begun to enjoy the scientific fruits of extended human-robot collaborations, conducted using reconnaissance satellites orbiting Mars as well as stationary and roving laboratories on the surface of the planet. Employing these exquisitely engineered systems, we have made monumental discoveries concerning the geology and climate of Mars, at a fraction of the cost of our current human spaceflight budget. Given the expected advances in computational power (compounded by the fact that our best Martian efforts so far are representative only of the cutting edge technology of the late 1990s) one thing is certain and that is the future probes that we dispatch to explore Mars will be dramatically more capable than the ones we have sent there so far.

Artist's rendering of a Mars
Exploration Rover
One does not have to subscribe to Ray Kurzweil's predictions of an impending technological singularity to accept the likelihood that within the next several decades - a time frame consistent with the preliminary phase of any one-way mission plan - highly-mobile, environmentally-rugged, fully-autonomous, cognitively-advanced, robots will be available to walk on, roll across, fly over and tunnel into the surface of the Red Planet.  Indeed, a critical feature of the Schulze-Makuch and Davies one-way mission proposal is that robots, sharing at least some of these capabilities, would be put to work preparing a Mars base to welcome the first human arrivals.

With this in mind, it's hard to imagine how a human-centered research effort on Mars could begin to compete with that of an exclusively robot-based one. The latter places dozens, perhaps hundreds, of robot research assistants scouring the planet as technically adept geologists and meteorologists, laboring sol in and sol out, indifferent to its tenuous atmosphere and largely unaffected by its frigid temperatures, regularly conferring with human supervisors on Earth to evaluate recent finds and to identify the most promising new targets for investigation.

Wearing the NDX-1 (North Dakota) space suit,
a student uses a sample-gathering tool.
A human-oriented approach to Martian science would rely on a limited number of relatively vulnerable human beings, venturing outside their subsurface habitats, but never far from safe haven, challenged by hazardous terrain, encumbered by protective clothing and life-support equipment, and able to work outside their habitats or vehicles only for short periods of time and only under favorable conditions.

A MQ-9 Reaper flies above Creech AFB
during a local training mission
To the extent that these Martian colonists chose to employ robots to make forays into the Martian environment in their place, they become little more than very expensive substitutes for Earth-based counterparts that could supervise these very same robot assistants from a greater distance. One need look no further than the shift in the U.S. Air Force to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and attack missions to appreciate the cost / effectiveness benefits of a division of labor between humans and robots in which (selected) humans are kept safely out of harm's way.

Bee Gees - "Stayin' Alive" video
Stayin' Alive
The fact of the matter is that humans, whether orbiting the Earth or living beneath the surface of Mars, although promoted as workers for the cause of science, must be preoccupied with one task, and that is, to put it simply, staying alive.  We are fragile - and precious - space and planetary cargo, and an extraordinary price must be paid to keep us fed, comfortable, safe and happy in dangerous environments.  Every kilogram of payload that is diverted for these purposes could better be put to use dedicated to the immediate scientific objectives of a mission or else eliminated from the flight manifest, thus permitting more efficient use of fuel and other valuable mission resources.

The well-intentioned, although strained, representation of astronauts as pioneering space scientists, used to garner support for the early space program, becomes an out-and-out fraud when human missions are now proposed that dramatically diminish the scientific return on our investment, especially in a day and age when so much more can be accomplished so much more cost-effectively and so much more safely by locating men and women away from the front lines of space exploration and, instead, leveraging our remarkable advances in robotic technology.

Part 4: One-Way Mission to Mars - Kumbaya Fail

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

One-Way Mission to Mars - Lifeboat for Humanity Fail

This is the second in a series of posts presenting my analysis and criticism of a proposed one-way mission to Mars. You can find the introduction here.

Illustration of an impact event
(courtesy of NASA)
There goes the neighborhood
Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies open their case for using a one-way mission to Mars to kick-start a human colony there by observing,
[W]e are a vulnerable species living in a part of the galaxy where cosmic events such as major asteroid and comet impacts and supernova explosions pose a significant threat to life on Earth, especially to human life.
and suggesting that it would offer humanity a "lifeboat" in the event of such mega-catastrophes.

Since recognition in the 1980s that the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65.5 million years ago that led to the demise of the dinosaurs was likely due to an asteroid impact, humanity - and Hollywood - have been put on notice that such "planet-killing" collisions are statistical possibilities, whose likelihood approaches a near certainty over time, that is without effective intervention.

Asteroid deflection, survival on the cheap?
Admittedly, having humans living on Mars would mean that some of our species would be safely out of harm's way in the event of such a catastrophe.  Their long-term survival, though, would be far from certain.  As a matter of prospective cost and potential benefit, the question is not whether a Mars colony, if successful, would guarantee that a few humans would survive for some period of time, since it does, but whether an expedited colonization program compares favorably with alternative approaches for accomplishing a similar or even vastly more desirable result.

Near-Earth asteroid discoveries as
a function of time
For example, expanded investment in surveillance efforts - such as NASA's Near Earth Object Program -  intended to identify potential collisions, coupled with the development of technologies to deflect space rocks heading our way by finessing their orbits years, if not decades, in advance of a too-close encounter would appear to be a immensely more cost-effective solution, one in which the survival not of 150 isolated souls on a cold, barren planet, but of billions of human beings on a globe teaming with life could be more predictably assured.

Artist's conception of a Mars
settlement with a cut-away view
(courtesy of NASA)
Subsurface habitats here instead?
With regard to an explosion of a nearby supernova, it should first be noted that humans on the surface of Mars may well suffer much the same fate as their counterparts on Earth. To the extent that specially designed subsurface human habitats on Mars would offer a significant amount of protection, then the same could be constructed on Earth and made available to a vastly larger number of people at a mere fraction of the cost of those used for a Mars colony.

Indeed the only reliable way to develop, verify and refine the kind of habitats to be used by one-way Martian colonists would be to design, build and inhabit comparable structures here.  So, far from representing an additional cost, fully-functioning terrestrial habitats would appear to be a useful, if not a necessary, step in successfully engineering counterparts on Mars.

In addition, a permanent underground terrestrial communities manned by a multinational force, composed of volunteers serving staggered, limited-term tours of duty, not only would provide significantly more assurance of our survival as a species in the event of a catastrophe of astrophysical origin, but also would serve to promote exactly the kind of international cooperation that the authors state is one of the desirable side-effects of the effort to colonize the Red Planet.

Former NASA astronaut
Lisa Nowak, charged
with attempted murder
Mars, a disease and discord free zone?
Other threats that motivate Schulze-Makuch and Davies include "global pandemics, nuclear or biological warfare, runaway global warming [and] sudden ecological collapse."  Mars colonists would be placed at a safe remove from the first two types of these catastrophes, but would nonetheless be subject to the dangers posed by disease as well as to the kinds of political, not to mention interpersonal, discord that could lead to the annihilation of their "civilization" in a matter of minutes.  On Mars a jilted lover with a hammer and access to critical life-support systems becomes that planet's Kim Jong Il.

As far as large-scale environmental degradation wrought by the likes of devastating climate change goes, it should be noted that even the most dreadful envisioned outcomes here would leave Earth-bound humans with an ecosystem infinitely more hospitable than any that they will ever find on Mars.

A lifeboat to nowhere
A scene from Alfred Hitchcock's
1944 film Lifeboat
More generally, the problem with the portrayal of a Martian colony as a putative lifeboat for humanity is that, as a metaphor, it is all too apt.  Lifeboats by their nature are transitional places of refuge; they are meant to convey passengers from a situation of rapidly deteriorating safety to one of predictable security; they are not sanctuaries in and of themselves.  Far from it, lifeboats are risky environments, recommended only by the fact that the certainty of going down with the ship is a far less attractive option.

Such would be the case with human presence on Mars, founded imprudently as a falsely desperate one-way mission, a lifeboat continuously in peril and without the glimmer of a hope of ever reaching another shore.

Part 3: One-Way Mission to Mars - Science Fail

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Does a One-Way Mission to Mars Make Sense? - Introduction

This is the introduction to a multi-part critique of a proposal that has been under consideration the last couple of years to send human pioneers on a one-way trip to Mars.

In Steven Spielberg's 1997 science-fiction film The Lost World: Jurassic Park chaos theorist Ian Malcolm, commenting on the decision to move genetically-resurrected dinosaurs off the island where they have been safely contained, says to the scientist-entrepreneur responsible for creating the creatures and placing them in a theme park, that this "is the worst idea in the long, sad history of bad ideas and I'm going to be there when you learn that."

When I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times by physicist Lawrence Krauss at the end of August, 2009 proposing A One-Way Ticket to Mars, I was reminded that the history of bad ideas marches on, specifically those bad ideas derived from a technological vision of the future not anchored in human reality.  Of course, bad ideas come and bad ideas go, but this one appears to have legs, as the publication in November of this study, To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars, by Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies in The Journal of Cosmology would indicate.

Having little hope of being around myself when and if this ill-considered idea is implemented, much less when it either reaches fruition or unravels, I take the opportunity to state my objections now.

Why a one-way trip?
John Kennedy before a joint session
of Congress, May 25, 1961
The proposal of a one-way Mars mission is not without technical merit.  Our 50 years of space-faring experience have equipped us with the engineering know-how to get human beings to the surface of Mars.  But unlike John Kennedy's speech before Congress in 1961 calling on Americans to take up the challenge of landing men on the Moon by the end of the decade, the possibility of returning these explorers of this new frontier safely to Earth made exceed our financial, if not our technological, grasp.

Schematic of the Earth's magnetosphere
with the solar wind flowing from the left
The primary reason for this has to do with the fact that outside the protective envelope of the Earth's magnetosphere, astronauts are exposed continuously worrisome levels of background cosmic radiation and occasionally to devastating levels inflicted by solar flares.  Tolerable risks associated with brief excursions to the Moon by the Apollo astronauts become unacceptable ones when spaces voyages extend for many months, as would be required by a round-trip mission to Mars.  Unacceptable that is if conventional safety recommendations concerning radiation exposure are at all respected.

As we might guess from the lead-lined aprons that are provided for our protection when we undergo dental x-rays, there are indeed ways to shield passengers during a long space voyage.  Unfortunately the increase in the weight of a spaceship by including such shielding adds significantly to the cost of the mission.  To make matters worse, the weight of fuel and provisions required by a two-way trip make the cost even more prohibitive, at least in our contemporary political and fiscal climate.  So, first and foremost, a one-way journey is proposed to reduce the cost of a manned Mars mission, with the intention of putting it within practical reach relatively soon.

2001: A Space Odyssey anticipated
challenges posed by long-duration
space flight
The approach avoids another problematic consequence of long-duration space travel, namely the lengthy rehabilitation required for astronauts to adjust to Earth's gravity that is a result of their extended stay in reduced- or zero-gee environments.  In addition, the risks to life and limb associated with taking off from Mars, reentering the Earth's atmosphere and landing here are eliminated by a one-way mission, not to mention the additional weight penalties required by the spacecraft systems responsible for accomplishing those demanding tasks.

Motivations for a Mars colony
According to the authors there are several motivations for the establishment of a permanent human presence on Mars, whether using a one-way Mars mission as a kick-start or not.  They are in brief:
  • to offer humanity a "lifeboat" in the event of a mega-catastrophe here on Earth,
  • to provide a base of operations for the scientific study of Mars, especially in the search for life forms that it might harbor, and a springboard for exploration of the outer solar system,
  • and to serve as a "strong and uplifting theme for all of humanity" with all the political and social benefits that would supposedly imply.
I would concur, that each of these reasons is good - even noble - on its face.  It is not at all clear, though, that these objectives can not be accomplished - perhaps better accomplished - using alternative approaches, at far lower cost and with far less risk to human life.

General Reservations
That said, my criticisms of the scheme outlined in the Schulze-Makuch / Davies paper have less to do with whether a one-way mission achieves their stated limited technical goals, and more to do with whether it represents either a cost-effective or an ethical way to go about colonizing or even exploring Mars.  I am also skeptical whether the imagined urgency that drives their dubious solution is in the least bit well-founded.  These will be the concerns that I will address in the parts of this essay to follow.

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