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Op-Ed

On to Mars -- but not back to Earth

We have the technology to send a human to the Red Planet. But to realize it anytime soon, the first traveler would have to stay there permanently.

February 06, 2011|By James C. McLane III

We can establish a human outpost on Mars in our generation, and reputable scientists are finally getting on board with the idea. Risky though it may be, we have the technology to place a person on the Red Planet. But, if NASA demands that the Mars explorer must return to Earth, then the idea becomes more like science fiction, and colonization probably can't be achieved within the lifespan of those now reading this article.

For a Mars colony to be a reality within the next 15 or so years, the first traveler would have to live out his or her life as a permanent resident of an alien desert world. That person could eventually be joined by others, but return would not be an option.

When we eliminate the requirement to bring the explorer back, we remove a major obstacle to mission practicality. Carrying a special return vehicle with rocket fuel to the surface of Mars, or somehow manufacturing fuel on the planet for a return launch, will not be feasible for decades. Planning is underway for a robotic mission to bring a one- or two-pound sample of Martian soil back to Earth for analysis, but even such a roundtrip mission to retrieve a tiny amount of dirt is a major technical challenge.

For a human mission, the life support and resupply would be greatly simplified if it's a one-way trip and there is only one astronaut. In such an expedition, a small person would hold an advantage — a female astronaut might be preferable — because smaller bodies make less demand on life-support systems. Perhaps the first mission might consist of two people; maybe even a male/female team. That privileged couple would follow the tradition of creation stories of many earthly religions, becoming more than just historic characters — they would become legends.

The Mars base, with life support, communication and other technical equipment, would be prepositioned on the surface before the first colonist lands and moves in. Every year we would have to supply each human on Mars with about 10,000 Earth pounds of food, water, oxygen, etc. Therefore, the smaller the crew, the better.

Robotic expeditions will always be cheaper than sending humans. But if we wait many years before initiating the effort to place a living explorer on Mars, we may never have the nerve to accept the expense or the risk of failure.

We'll never be able to justify the cost of a Mars settlement based on potential economic payoffs because the benefits are distant and exotic. It's hard to predict the return from capital investment in things that haven't been tried before. But the builders of the Panama Canal, the U.S. transcontinental railroad and our interstate highway system couldn't have imagined the transforming, long-term benefits that have come from those projects. Such would be the case with the opening of a new frontier on Mars.

The Apollo moon landing effort once employed nearly half a million people. Most Americans had a relative or an acquaintance who was, in some way, connected to the effort. The country had mobilized for war on several occasions, but never had it so widely organized to pursue a peaceful goal. It made us proud to be Americans. A Mars colonization program would do the same.

It may seem too risky to rely on one astronaut. But on Earth, in many dangerous endeavors — such as commercial diving — the practitioners often go it alone. And we may find it hard to imagine that one of our kind could survive the deprivations of a lonely existence on Mars. Yet, solo sailors have been trapped in the Arctic icepack. Research scientists have lived in isolation for months in dark, damp caves. It's apparent that humans can cope with social separation. Some actually seek out and thrive in such environments.

Our prehistoric ancestors must have been self-reliant risk takers, quite unlike many modern humans whose lives involve constant cooperative behavior in a safe environment. We seek assistance with even the most trivial of daily challenges. Most people today never have to test the limits of their personal capabilities. Our instinctual survival skills are seldom exercised.

The first traveler to Mars will represent the tip of a long spear of human evolution. If there is such a thing as inherited memory, the astronaut may well carry the dreams of our cave-dwelling ancestors who gathered around campfires and puzzled over the bright spot of orange that was Mars wandering across the night sky. To delay colonizing Mars, when after a million years of human progress we finally have the ability to do so, is to reject those amazing qualities that set us apart from all other living creatures.

The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." In our human family, a yearning to expand into that "endless immensity" — the sea of the universe — is strong, and now we just need to build the ship!

James C. McLane III is a former NASA engineer and associate fellow at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

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