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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One-Way Mission to Mars - Science Fail by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Pat Loughlin said...

On the submarine, we went out for ten weeks at a time. My sub always made it through the ten weeks but other subs frequently broken down and did not . We could have packed the sub with food and tried stayed out longer but we probably would have broken down within six months. We had lots of redundancy in our machines and spare parts and we would get real creative with what we had in order to keep the ship going but we were only delaying the inevitable. All machines break eventually.

Marc Merlin said...

Thanks, Pat,

I think you are correct in pointing out that even with the funds and experience available to the U.S. Navy it's hard to engineer reliability into systems that endures for months, much less years. The same has been discovered with critical systems on the International Space Station (ISS).

One issue that I will address in a subsequent essay has to do with how utterly unprepared we are to predict the psychological effects of the isolation of a small group of people in a very threatening environment for years, which is exactly what we will be called on to do if a "kick-start" one-way Mars mission is ever mounted.

Your comments about that dimension of the problem when I write about it would be very welcome, since long-duration submarine voyages are one of the few data points we have. ISS and Antarctic stays being the only other ones that come to mind. I'll note in advance that those are both instances where participants look forward to return.