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Mars Mission: The Unwise in Pursuit of the Unknown

August 24, 1986|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a Newsweek contributing editor. His book, "This Magic Moment," will be published in December.

WASHINGTON — Talk about optimism: At a time when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration can't get a satellite in orbit, the recent report of the National Commission on Space recommends all-out commitment to manned exploration of Mars, culminating in permanent settlement by 2027.

Thomas O. Paine, commission chairman and a former NASA administrator, predicted that a century from now 100,000 people will be living on the red planet, and "young Martians (will be) pressing for additional settlements beyond the asteroid belt."

Paine is not alone on the Mars beam. A congressional delegation headed by Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the House space science subcommittee and a shuttle-flight veteran, visited Moscow to discuss a joint U.S.-Soviet mission. Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga (D-Hawaii) has written a book endorsing Mars travel; Carl Sagan, in his capacity as president of the Planetary Society, one of the largest scientific associations, recently began pushing for a Mars mission. An influential "Mars Underground" of activist scientists has sprouted within the aerospace community. NASA is about to begin an expensive Mars flight study; President Reagan is to respond to the commission's Mars recommendations by October.

If all this sounds crazy, remember that they called Columbus crazy. They called the Wright Brothers crazy. They called Juan Ponce de Leon crazy. Of course, they were right about Ponce. Is Mars a fool's goal, or the next human horizon?

Mars dreams are as old as the space program. In the 1950s, Werner von Braun urged that Earth ignore her lifeless moon and proceed directly to Mars. He proposed construction of what was then--and remains today--a fantastic fleet of 10 space vessels, with seven astronauts each. In 1956, Von Braun and space visionary Willy Ley wrote "The Exploration of Mars," calling for a mission slightly less fantastic: two nuclear-powered ships with 12 men each.

Others were equally optimistic. During the 1960s, NASA awarded some 60 contracts for the study of Mars missions, many under the umbrella name of Project Empire. An American Astronautics Society conference predicted a Mars expedition using souped-up Apollo moon mission hardware in 1972.

Soon, however, Mars travel began to look more difficult. Increased knowledge of solar flares revealed that Mars vessels would require heavy shielding to protect crews from solar radiation. (Spacecraft near Earth are protected by the planet's magnetosphere.) Researchers in the Antarctic found long confinements could be dangerously stressful. Cosmonauts abroad the Salyut mini-space station have been forbidden to play chess since a Soviet scientist at Antarctica killed a colleague during an argument over a match.

Most telling, nuclear engines didn't work. Although nuclear reactors produce considerable zing from a few pounds of uranium, translating that zing into forward motion has gotten nowhere. The space shuttle's main engines, powered by liquid hydrogen, are considered as efficient as "chemical" or conventional rocket motors will be. But their potential for interplanetary flight is modest, their practical maximum speed low by space travel standards. Starships powered by chemical rockets would be taken over by the vast bulk of fuel to be carried. Without more advanced propulsion, Mars travel could take years.

Meanwhile, experience indicates that the long-term effects of weightlessness may be more pronounced than once thought. Lack of gravity causes resorption of metabolic calcium, a condition resembling osteoporosis or brittle-bone disease. So far there is no known antidote. Also worrisome is space-born muscular atrophy. Cosmonauts on long Salyut stays exercise almost to the point of fanaticism, yet are weak on return. Such factors suggest that Mars vessels would require simulated gravity--using spoke-and-wheel designs that spin. Unfortunately, such designs must be big, and in space big means expensive.

Finally "closed" life-support systems, recycling water and food byproducts, have turned out to be no mean trick--no one has built one yet. A Mars fleet must carry tens of tons of water, food and oxygen--another staggering expense.

It's a safe bet that had the 1976 Viking robot probes on Mars found evidence of life, we would be mounting an expeditionary fleet at this moment, and hang the expense. But public enthusiasm for Mars waned when Viking scooped up only the faintest hint of biotic activity.

At this low juncture, the Mars Underground was founded by Carol Stoker, Christopher McKay and Penelope Boston, three graduate students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Discoveries of bacteria living in rock formations at the South Pole, defying all odds, persuaded the three that Mars might not be barren.

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