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To Virtually Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

Space: Information technology allows explorers to travel to Mars without leaving Earth.

August 07, 2000|JOHN MERCHANT | John Merchant is a retired aerospace engineer and consultant in Needham, Mass. E-mail:

The possible discovery of water on Mars raises the question of whether there is, or ever has been, life on Mars. Should a manned mission be undertaken to find out?

The problem is that the limited results of a one-shot visit to that planet may not be sufficient to justify the enormous difficulty, danger and prohibitive cost of such a mission. There is much more at stake in the human exploration and development of space, however, than water on Mars, and there may be a much easier way to get there.

To explore and develop Mars, humans certainly must be there. Locating the body there, by means of a manned mission, is one way to be there, but is prohibitively expensive. The space age began when the rocket technology of the last century finally was able to lift objects away from the formerly irresistible pull of Earth's gravity. Yet the technology of the 21st century is very much information technology, and it is this technology that may now make it possible for a person to be on Mars, not by a manned mission, but by a manned-equivalent mission.

A manned-equivalent mission is a space mission that provides an Earth-based explorer with virtually the same subjective sensory-experience of Mars, for example, and the same objective action capability to get things done on Mars as a manned mission, but with the practicality, safety and affordability of an unmanned mission. In particular, the Earth-based explorer would be able to repair the equipment on Mars. Thus, once a manned-equivalent mission has been undertaken to Mars, it can function there indefinitely, and humans will be there--permanently on Mars.

The Earth-based explorer in a manned-equivalent mission to Mars is on Mars, although his or her body is not. The body's presence on Mars does not, by itself, contribute anything to the human exploration and development of Mars, but is solely responsible for the great difficulty, danger and prohibitive cost of the manned mission.

The beginnings of manned-equivalent mission technology have been successfully demonstrated in the 1997 Pathfinder mission to Mars. Earth-based controllers issued high-level directives (go there, do that) and the rover then autonomously performed these tasks during the transmission delay period. A three-dimensional computer model of the landing site was constructed from the video data received from Mars. NASA released fly-over video sequences derived from this model to the TV networks. These dynamic sequences provided the visual effect of being there and moving around at will.

The development of the manned-equivalent mission from the relatively primitive Pathfinder technology will be challenging. Yet, given the explosive state of development of all aspects of information technology, there is reasonable expectation that it can be done. (The robotic and vision technology to be developed will have immensely important terrestrial application, no matter what happens in space.)

A manned mission to Mars can be likened to an expedition to climb Mt. Everest. The first time is exciting, but what does it lead to? This was the problem with the moon landings. Once a manned-equivalent mission has been undertaken to Mars, however, Earth-based explorers (men and women, old and young, courageous and not so courageous) will be there permanently. Not only could Mars be thoroughly explored, but viable commercial enterprises could also be established, such as mining for ores and minerals not found or much less accessible on Earth. That is what exploration and development really is all about.

Since the beginning of the space age, there have been two competing, often contentiously debated approaches to space exploration, manned and unmanned. With the manned space program at a virtual impasse and a veritable explosion in information technology, we should consider a third option, the manned-equivalent mission.

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