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Scientific VIEW

Fantasy Mars Trip Has Roots in Reality

December 25, 1985|BETTYANN KEVLES

The Mars One Crew Manual arrived not long ago in a batch with some Christmas cards. Inside, a letter dated July 1, 1995, explains its purpose. I was welcomed as one of 11 members of the multinational, multiracial crew preparing to make the first human visit to another planet.

The rest of the manual (Bantam, 1985) describes in intricate detail the interior of the spacecraft--eating, sleeping and hygienic facilities--as well as my duties on board and my duties as part of the survey team when we reach Mars. It also filled me in on the history of Mars One 1996 from the time that a decision to go was made in 1987.

Of course I'm flattered. How nice to be chosen. However, I feel obliged to point out their mistakes. The decision to launch an international manned survey of Mars could happen in 1986.

Although no world-shattering announcements echoed from Geneva in November, it was clear by mid-December that a great deal more had been decided upon than was apparent at the time. Among the problems we agreed to attack together are the reduction on a global scale of the emissions of chlorofluorocarbons that deplete the ozone layer of the upper atmosphere, and limiting the increasing levels of carbon dioxide that are raising the earth's temperature and causing the "greenhouse effect." An international mission to Mars would be a fit cap to these cooperative ventures.

The manual is, of course, a fantasy, but one rooted in a technology of what is already possible. Serious scientists like Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray of the Planetary Society are proposing such a mission early in the next century.

They outlined this in July when the alumni of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz link-up met in Washington to celebrate the anniversary of that milepost of extraplanetary good will. They suggest that a joint U.S.-Soviet manned mission to Mars could be ready for departure in 2010.

Although they estimate that a manned mission will cost about $40 billion (a sum more easily shared by the two superpowers and perhaps the European Space Agency and Japan) it would be a bargain if it could bring peoples together as the planners foresee.

Crew members for such an expedition would have to learn each others languages and a good deal about their cultures simply to live together in close quarters for almost three years. It could be an educational experience that the peoples of the participating nations could all share.

Once the Mars ship was launched, TV cameras would keep the crew's progress before the eyes of the world. As an international effort, unlike the Olympics, we would all be rooting for everyone. After docking in orbit and sending manned craft to the surface to set up camp and explore this new world, the whole Earth would follow the crew as they took soil specimens, traced what seem like dried out river beds to their sources, and examined volcanoes three times the size of any on Earth.

Besides satisfying human curiosity more thoroughly than even the most ingenious robots could, a manned mission to Mars and its moons would open up the exploitation of other extraterrestrial objects, including asteroids, to mining and colonization.

The Soviets have already begun to plan a mission to Mars. It would be more economical for us to join forces than to duplicate each others efforts.

The year 2010 is a good 25 years later than the mission described in the manual. If lunar advocates at NASA have their way, a Mars mission could be delayed further in order to establish a base on the moon first. The moon is closer and would consequently be easier to explore. However, Mars promises a chance to learn more about our own planet's history by finding out what happened on a nearly parallel world. Moreover, although Mars is a great deal further away, it might be easier to settle. Unlike the moon, Mars has an atmosphere and consequently oxygen could be separated for breathing, and the carbon dioxide could be used in farming. It is far away, but once there the crew could in some ways live off the land.

Whether the eventual spacecraft will be like the one in the manual is of course unknown. Still under study are the physical and psychological ramifications of space travel. The crew would be exposed to high levels of radiation from cosmic rays for a long stretch of time. Moreover, there is evidence that weightlessness weakens muscle tissue and causes loss of calcium in the bones. It would be devastating to send a crew of healthy individuals who on arrival would be too ill to complete their assignments.

Weightlessness could be solved by spinning the spacecraft to simulate gravity. That might displease the crew. Sally Ride, who was present in Washington in July, describes weightlessness as benign, a great joy and enough of a pleasure that it somehow compensates for any small loss of health.

Reading through the manual I am saddened that I will not really be able to join that first crew. The quarters look cozy, the responsibilities a challenge, and the view, both going and coming home, something I still hope to enjoy, if only vicariously through the eyes of a video monitor, within the next 40 years.

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