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Waving goodbye to Mars..?

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Although I’m obviously hoping to hang on until my hundredth birthday in January 2065, chances are I will probably die around the year 2045. I’ll be pretty happy with that; I’ll be 80, which is – as we say here in Blighty – a “good innings” – and it will mean I’ll hopefully, if I can still see, manage to enjoy the second appearance of Halley’s Comet in my lifetime. I’m pretty sure we’ll have discovered life somewhere “Out There” by then too. Either we’ll have discovered simple forms of life beneath the rocks of Mars or under the ice of Europa or Enceladus, or we’ll have detected radio or laser or somethingelsewecan’tevenimagineyet transmissions from technological civilisations on the planets of other stars. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that news will break long before I shuffle off the stage – hopefully within the next few years, actually.

But suddenly I’m beginning to wonder if I’m going to die before witnessing the other major event I’ve always longed to see, something I’ve dreamed of witnessing, and being a part of, ever since I was a space-mad kid at St Joseph’s Junior School, hiding out of sight in a quiet corner, pouring over the library’s small collection of science books while all the others were running around screaming outside in the sunshine.

I’m honestly starting to think I might not live to see the first humans walk on Mars.

Why? Well, it all seems to be going into frakking reverse, doesn’t it? Mars rovers are being delayed left, right and centre. The space shuttle is being retired with no replacement ready to fly. Unbelievably, there’s talk of de-orbiting (that’s a fancy, NASA-speak term for ‘throwing away by letting it burn up in the atmosphere like a big shooting star’) the ISS by 2016, just as it’s starting to become a fully crewed, fully functional orbital facility. Let’s face it, we are no nearer sending people to Mars now than we were when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin returned from the Moon – in fact, come to think of it, we’re probably farther away from mounting a crewed expedition to the red planet than we were then! We have no 21st century Saturn V, no heavy lift launcher to carry the components of a Mars expedition ship into orbit. We don’t have a lander that could set down on Mars. We don’t have public support for a manned Mars mission. And as the passionate glow of President Obama’s election support and enthusiasm for NASA cools faster than a hot coal spat out of a fire, and he ties NASA up with yet another bloody red tape review, we clearly don’t have high level political support for space exploration in general, manned or unmanned, either.

No, unless something dramatic happens – like Oppy discovers fossils in the wall of Endeavour crater, or a martian meteorite proves to contain traces of martian bacteria - if we’re going anywhere soon, it’s the Moon, and the date of that trip looks like being put back too. NASA was hoping to – cue dramatic, stirring music – Return To The Moon in 2020. I’ll be amazed if US astronauts are standing on the Moon by 2025, if not later. The Chinese might beat them, but if they do it’ll only be by a couple of years. No-one is going to raise a flag on the Moon, of any colour, design or nationality – for another decade and a half, I’m convinced.

Of course I understand going to Mars is not easy. It’s not like just going “a bit further than the Moon, for a little while longer”. It will require leaps in technology that just aren’t on the horizon right now. It will require more money – a lot more money – than is available right now, in these godawful financially precarious times. It will require a political commitment, and political vision, that just isn’t there right now. It will require an incredibly large jump in public support for and interest in manned spaceflight, that looks about as likely, right now, as Paris Hilton throwing up her hands and saying “Please! No pictures!” as she leaves a club.

No. We’re not going to Mars for a long, long time.

Which really saddens me – no, it doesn’t, I’ll be honest: it really, royally, absolutely hacks me off. It makes me want to punch my fist through the computer screen in front of me here, then go over to the window over there, push it up and howl “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!” out of it.

We should be on Mars now!! Why the hell aren’t we? Oh, that’s right, because we lost our bottle after going to the Moon.

We should be going online today and watching astronauts standing on the edge of the Valles Marineris, controlling a balloon that’s exploring the canyon beneath them! Why aren’t we? Ah, yes, now I remember – because we’d rather spend our money on pet food, cosmetics, pizza and video games.

We should be celebrating the birth of the first child on Mars this weekend, going “Aaaahhhh!” and “Awwwww!” as her picture is shown on every TV news program and on every news, science and space site in cyberspace! Why won’t we? Sorry, I clean forgot – because the public still aren’t convinced that the exploration of space is a worthwhile endeavour, and they see it as a luxury, not a part of our everyday lives, and an insurance policy for the future.

So, here I sit, on this cold, windy day in the Lake District, listening to the rain lashing against my window, looking through it at the steel-grey sky above the slate roofs opposite me, and I’m thinking that I possibly won’t live to see the first man or woman set foot on Mars.

I think my best hope is for a manned mission to take place around 2030, by which time I’ll be 65. That’s okay, I could live with that. I’d – hopefully – still be fairly fit, and independant, and able to enjoy the build up to and culmination of the great event at home, watching the Ares #1 launch and landing in comfort, surrounded by friends and family, all gathered in front of the big holographic widesecreen surround sound VR-immersing TV. I’ll have a “Mars Landing” party, invite all my old astronomy friends, and we’ll sit and reminisce about the “good old days” when we sat at our computers, struggling with our primitive, snail-slow 8Mb broadband connections, watching NASA TV, following shuttle launches, planetary encounters and press conferences. We’ll laugh at how we all held our breath as the twin Mars rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” landed, and remember fondly how we followed their epic treks across the floor of Gusev Crater and across the great, wide open plain of Meridiani, respectively. We’ll go strangely silent when we think back to the day when we lost the first rover, and go misty-eyed and frog-throated when we recall the day the second rover died too, ending the great MER Adventure. But we’ll cheer up as we watch that first man, or woman, edging slowly down the ladder, or ramp, or whatever they mount on the outside of the MEM, and then cheer – and in all likelyhood burst into tears – when the first bootprint is made in the martian dust, finally, finally, after all the years of waiting and hoping and dreaming…

But that’s only going to happen if we – and by “we” I mean NASA, ESA, other agencies, private businesses, space enthusiasts and outreachers – all get our act together, if we all pull our collective fingers out and work together to send people to Mars. If we don’t start planning – and I mean seriously planning, not just knocking up reports, fancy Powerpoints and CGI videos – then even that date will slip and 2030 will effortlessly become 2040.

20 frakking 40…

In 2040 I’ll be 75. Oooh, now that’s pushing it. With medical advances etc I should still be around then, Universe Willing, but where will I be? Still in my own home, or being looked after somewhere else?

What kind of state will I be in, mentally and physically?

When I’m not waxing lyrical about Mars, the Moon and the universe, I work in a care home for the elderly, that’s my day job. It’s every bit as challenging, rewarding, upsetting, frustrating, depressing and frightening as you can imagine, but trust me, you have no idea – No Idea – what kind of things I have to do , or what sights I see, during even an average, uneventful day. So I have a dread, a horror, an absolute terror of being somewhere like that when the first manned expedition to Mars sets off. Not because it’s a bad place, not in any way, and certainly not because the people there aren’t looked after well, but because I just can’t stand the idea of not being able to enjoy the lift off, landing and return of Ares #1 – or whatever it’s called – in the way I want to.

I can see it now, clear as day… it’s July 29th, 2040, and I’m sitting in a communal living room or lounge with my fellow residents, and there are just a few minutes to go until the Ares #1 lander touches down on Mars. But no-one else cares. Some are over there playing cards, or something else; others are reading their E-books; others are chattering and nattering away, loudly. The big 3D holo-v is on, over there in the corner, and it should, obviously, be showing the Mars mission live coverage… but it’s showing a soap opera or something equally banal, which is being watched intently by a cluster of hardcore fans, and I know there’s no point even trying to ask them to change channel because the last time someone did that it triggered an argument that split the lounge in two in a horrific ,walking frame-rattling civil war… So, all I can do is watch the clock as time passes by… tick… tick… they must be on the surface by now… tick… tick…

Missed it, missed the whole damn thing…

“Depressed” doesn’t even come close. :-(

This melancholy has never been a problem for me before. I’ve always been very optimisic about the manned exploration of Mars. I have always seen it as basically just a natural progress, a natural evolution from the unmanned Mars exploration program. I’ve grown up thinking that after we’d built a decent space station, and messed about on the Moon again for a while, we’d simply pack the wagons, crack the whip by the horse’s ear and, with a loud “Yee-hah!”, head for Mars…

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After all, Mars is the next logical place to go, right? But in the past year or so I’ve detected a very subtle but very real change of momentum within that plan. It’s become all about getting back to the Moon.  Mars is now very much an aspiration rather than a goal. Lots of people insist they Want to go to Mars, but none of them are keen to talk figures, either re. dates or finances.

There are three main reasons why we’re not seeing NASA – or anyone else – pushing for a manned mission to Mars right now. mission to Mars. Firstly, there’s just not the money available, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just deluding themselves. The global economy is lying in intensive care, machines and monitors bleeping all around it, after being wounded in a drive-by shooting carried out by the world’s banking and financial institutions. The multiple tens of billions of dollars needed to plan and stage a manned mission to Mars is just not there.

Secondly, there’s no public demand – or, if we’re honest, even widespread support – for a manned mission to Mars. They see the breathtaking images sent back by Spirit and Oppy, MRO and Mars Express and think “Hey, why bother sending people when machines can do THAT?”

But the biggest reason, I think, is that the time required to plan and mount a manned mission to Mars makes it less appealing to politicians than having their picture taken shaking Osaba Bin Laden’s hand whilst kicking a blind puppy. If NASA’s new Administrator, Charles Bolden, went to the White House today and told President Obama that they had figured out a way to get people to Mars within ten years – which would be a hell of an achievement – a little devil sitting on his shoulder would whisper into his ear “Don’t listen to this guy, O! Even if he’s not BSing you, you won’t even BE Prez when the spaceship lands on Mars, it’ll be the next guy, or even the guy after him! You’d just be remembered as the schuck who said yes and handed them a huge fat check to set them off. Why bother when it’ll be someone else talking to the astronauts on the phone after they’ve landed on Mars, not you...”

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Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just feeling fed up. But am I alone? Is anyone else out there thinking and feeling the same way? It can’t be just me. My generation has grown up believing, trusting, that we were going to see people walking on Mars in my lifetime. Everyone’s told us that. The presenters on TOMORROW’S WORLD told us that. Science and astronomy books told us that. And look! The “Mars mission” card in the Brooke Bond Tea “Race To Space” card collection (click on image to bring up a full size version and wallow in nostalgia) even set a date for the first manned Mars landing: August 9th, 1982..!

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Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Maybe the big review being undertaken of NASA’s manned spaceflight plans will help refocus hearts and minds on Mars. I hope so. I really, really want to be on this side of the grass when that first bootprint is made in the martian dust.

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11 Responses

  1. I think that the game changer, if there is one, is if China (or anyone else) beats the U.S. back to the moon. It might be a jolt similar to the one made when the Soviets were first in space, making politicians feel the need to “one-up” them by being first to Mars.

  2. Ah, someone the same age as I! To be honest, I do not think I will live to see the return to the Moon. I do not think anyone has the political will power to pull it off. Not America. Not China. Not the Russians. Not the Indians. Unless some things drastically change, I am afraid the era of manned space exploration is finished for quite some time to come, at least as far as the Americans are concerned. And that makes me sad.

  3. Another depressing thought: only 18 of the 24 men who travelled beyond LEO are still with us. Will any of them be here to watch the next time people travel far enough to see the whole globe of the Earth?

  4. I’ll be one hundred in 2065. I see my thoughts reflected in your blog. But I want to thing, I know, that new technology, new discoveries, new alliances will improve and speed up the way to Moon and Mars and we’ll enjoy all these events comfortably from home.

    I hope so.

  5. I feel your pain Stu. I am 10 years younger than you but I don’t fancy my chances of seeing a MEM touching down in my lifetime either. I think the most compelling argument for skeptics about human space exploration is what can we do about radiation on Mars? I have no idea how to answer that one. I wish Arthur C Clarke was still around…

  6. Hi Cumbrian Sky

    Cool nostalgia piece at the end. Mine was the entry on Mars missions in the “Encyclopedia of Space Technology” from c.1979 which had a similar diagram plus cool cutaways of the NERVA Mars ships. Adrian Mann has done some very cool visualisations of them here…

    http://www.bisbos.com/rocketscience/spacecraft/nerva/nerva.html

    …Von Braun proposed a reusable version of the NERVA Mars rockets to launch that 1981-1983 Mars mission, a second mission in 1985-1987 and to establish a 72 person base by 1989. Of course he probably knew it would never fly, but I think he wanted to give us a lasting vision of a what an America not exhausted by race riots, environmental degradation and Vietnam atrocities could have done. Nixon killed it, of course, and almost closed the whole manned space program down. “Skylab” and the ASTP missions almost didn’t fly, but someone argued long and hard for them both and the Shuttle.

    So the rot set in c.1970 when all these decisions were being made. All the money that could’ve built a lasting human presence in space by 1990 was instead spent on Vietnam and the Reagan-era build up of missile systems.

    Just what that bought the West, legacy wise, is the current trouble with the Middle East because the Reagan/Thatcher era was built on the oil politics of the 1970s…

  7. We can do human Mars fly-bys and Phobos touchdowns within 10 years I think, on a flexable path but the EDL system to get heavy human bearing loads to the surface seems extremely unlikely within that time frame. And that’s if NASA skips developement of lunar base and landing systems in favor of flexable path long duration space transhab and propusion systems. Maybe partnering with bigelow aerospace, spaceX and adastra rocket could speed things along.

    I’d love the idea of seeing boots on Mars in my lifetime.

  8. This is as good an emblem as anything for the tragedy of the low esteem of science and progress in the public imagination. I share your despair, and not just for nostalgic reasons. We need to realise, as a species, that if we do not start planning _now_ for the inevitable exhaustion of resources on our planet, we’re not going to survive it. Going to Mars is more than just exciting, it’s absolutely crucial to our future.

  9. You won’t miss it, you will watch it with your projecting mobile like everyone else. ;-)

    Mars is certainly not the next “logical place”, nor even practical one, which is a major problem.

    Practical goals today are suborbital research and tourism, LEO research and tourism, NEO research and impact prevention, Moon research and resource utilization, Lagrange points ditto.

    That will keep us plenty occupied while robots whittle away on those parts of the solar system we can’t practically reach with todays technology. Meanwhile we will have to develop some of the lacking technology for a Mars visit such as cheap and fast drive technology and radiation protection.

    But even so, AFAIU no one has figured out how to land the huge mass needed for a manned expedition on Mars within a realistic mass budget. Rockets can’t do it, parachutes can’t, wings can’t. There are ideas of a inflatable drag cone, but it remains to be developed and tested.

    All in all, the unrealistic time schedules of manned Mars visits is like the tokamak fusion energy ideas, which were pushed ever onwards and finally inflated to todays minimum 50 years (on full budget) when people finally had a handle on the actually needed technology.

    Already setting the sight on the Moon again is too far of a goal, if we want something done in todays environment. Good thing that the Constellation program actually had the sense to ramp down to make the needed LEO version of the Orion instead of the Moon version.

  10. Well written. I guess in the end we all have a choice too. We can sit around and wait for someone else to do something that we have no control over, and it may never happen. Or we can get involved in actually making it happen ourselves. Yes, I know it sounds crazy, and chances are not much will be accomplished if you step up and help the cause (like at Marsdrive), but if I don’t live to see humans on Mars at least I’ll die knowing I tried my best to make it happen.

    In fact, that’s exactly what Marsdrive is going to do. We pledge to send something to Mars, however small. That way we can know that we at least made our own impact on Mars, and it might just inspire some to follow with the real (human) mission. If it takes us the next 10 or 20 years, so what? The cost is within our reach. Human missions are another matter, and we’ll do what we can to make that happen too. Join us.

  11. I share your despair and bitterness on this, Stu. So little done, so little momentum, so little and it seems too late. Elon Musk and SpaceX are the only ones with the purpose and – just remotely possible – the means. And they are going so snail slow it is horrible.

    My website is blogspirit.heavensrim.com
    and it describes the enthusiasm I had back with the apparent speed of the civilian space movement in 2004. everything since – a snail’s pace, with constant setbacks in time and dates.

    Like a place in Hades, maybe near the large hill and stone described in the Myth of Sisyphus.

    Hold out some hope, but it is getting buried in sadness and frustration.

    Ken Erickson, M.D. Ph.D.
    Space Settlement enthusiast and Ad Astra addict
    503-313-9020

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