To Make Mankind Great Again, Push to Mars

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Last weekend, at the 14th International Mars Society Convention in Dallas, Texas, the message was clear: it is imperative that we send a manned mission to Mars.

The slogan was: “Mars or Bust.”

This may sound dramatic, but as highlighted by Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin during his closing speech, human spaceflight is at a crossroads and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether U.S. manned exploration beyond low-Earth orbit will ever become more than a Cold War memory.

Zubrin blames manned spaceflight stagnation squarely on a lack of leadership in space. Many other speakers echoed this criticism.

ANALYSIS: Mars Colonists Will Take Cues From The Wild West

The Politics of Space

As we all know, U.S. spaceflight is dominated by politics — political agendas wax and wane with each administration that takes office — it’s little wonder NASA is currently suffering from a serious bout of confusion. Projects are funded, cut and then canceled on a shockingly frequent cycle (e.g. The James Webb Space Telescope is still being eyed for cancellation). The economy has slumped, only adding to the political pressure to do very little in the way of investment for manned spaceflight.

But despite the pessimism at the convention, overwhelming hope shone through.

From the plenary talks to the track sessions to the panel debates, ideas were shared and concepts taught by engineers, scientists and enthusiasts. Presentations included: Massive surface-to-space “guns” to launch cargo into orbit; techniques to store rocket fuel in orbital depots; space navigation using X-ray pulsars; even how to grow tomatoes in Martian greenhouses using Martian soil. The topics were as varied as they were immersive.

Although there were a fair number of advanced concepts (our friend Richard Obousy was even there to give a talk about the awesome Project Icarus), most of the presentations applied technology we have access to today, furthering humankind’s reach into the Cosmos.

ANALYSIS: Why Explore Mars?

Heated debates about how a Martian society might function erupted in the corridors. Spirited discussions were held at impromptu meetings in the venue’s bar and restaurant. Everyone was buzzing with the excitement that the next few years could (could) see an injection of global interest in sending a manned mission to Mars.

Why? For starters, representatives from Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) were there discussing the private sector’s plans to develop the means to send humans to the Red Planet.

This comes hot on the heels of Musk’s grand announcement that SpaceX has its sights set on Mars. Naturally, enthusiasts have latched onto SpaceX’s dreams, and for the first time I heard serious discussions about using commercial heavy lift rockets to take habitats to the Red Planet’s surface.

Whether or not this goal is achieved in the near-term isn’t important at this stage — after all, the private sector has yet to begin sending cargo to the International Space Station, let alone begin launching astronauts — just the fact the subject is on the table is silver lining enough.

ANALYSIS: The Shuttle Is Dead; Long Live The Politics

Asteroid or Mars?

Also, the end of the Shuttle Program was seen by many as overdue — perhaps NASA can now focus on pushing the human spaceflight envelope beyond low-Earth orbit?

Unfortunately, President Obama’s direction for NASA’s next big “envelope-pushing” manned mission was met with skepticism at best. At worst, the plan to send astronauts to an asteroid “by the mid-2020′s” was met with outright hostility.

One convention delegate, associated with a NASA contractor, went so far to tell me that he thought a manned mission to an asteroid was “reckless” and the very notion that astronauts docking with a near-Earth asteroid would be useful was “a complete lie” and “just a way to distract the people from wanting a lunar or Mars goal.”

Along similar lines, Zubrin remains outspoken about his criticism for the space propulsion “silver bullet” that promises Earth-Mars transits of 39 days. I am, of course, referring to the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) being developed by former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz. Before this year’s convention, Zubrin challenged Chang-Diaz to attend a debate on the technologies behind VASIMR. Alas, a public debate didn’t happen.

The sticking point with VASIMR is that it would require so much energy to function, it would need a space-based nuclear power source vastly bigger than anything we’ve seen in space before. The technology may be there, but this form of plasma propulsion appears to be bolted firmly to the laboratory floor. Therefore, according to Zubrin and other critics, until some as-yet to be imagined alternative power source is invented, VASIMR is a project that will suck up funds with no hope of actually making a difference in space, let alone facilitating a manned mission to Mars.

SLIDE SHOW: Phoenix Mars Lander’s First Images

The Life Incentive

The fundamental question being asked during the convention was: “Why send humans to Mars?” After all, it would be an expensive, high-risk endeavor; why put the lives of men and women on the line to begin an extended human presence on, what appears to be, a dead planet?

First and foremost — and potentially the sole reason (in my opinion) why we might see a sudden political interest for a manned expedition to Mars — is that we don’t know if the Red Planet is dead. Even if it doesn’t host life now, did it in the past?

And this is one thing the space community (mainly) agrees on; robotic missions are not going to find definitive proof that there are, or were, basic lifeforms on Mars. Human ingenuity will be invaluable for an extended and expansive Mars biology-hunting mission.

Coincidentally, Mars was thrust into the mainstream media when, right in the middle of the convention, news about observations of suspected salty water flowing across the Martian surface was announced. Once again, the potential for Mars to spawn its own form of life (or is it a shared form of life?) became the key topic for discussion. Local media seized the opportunity and descended on the Mars Society Convention to see what the experts thought.

Despite the pessimism, criticisms, concerns and frustration focused on the current state of the space program in the U.S., there was a moment when everyone in the convention was united in excitement.

Speaking at the convention banquet, NASA’s Ashwin Vasavada, Deputy Project Scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), presented a fantastic overview of the next flagship mission to Mars. Called “Curiosity,” the MSL will be a Mars mission like no other.

PHOTOS: When Discovery News Met Mars Rover ‘Curiosity’

The nuclear-powered car-sized rover will land inside Gale Crater to explore a landscape never before seen through robotic eyes. It is thought that Gale may answer some important questions about the life-giving qualities Mars might have offered and Curiosity will be on the lookout for life’s signature.

Vasavada also confirmed Curiosity’s time of arrival on the Red Planet: Aug. 6, 2012 — exactly a year (to the day) from his presentation.

Pinnacle of Human Experience

Can Curiosity invigorate Mars science and provide the impetus for an extended manned presence on Mars? Well, that remains to be seen.

But if you asked me “why send man to Mars?” my answer wouldn’t depend on whether or not Martian life exists (or existed). I wouldn’t even say a political motivation — like competing with China to be the first to land a man on Mars — is a good reason to do so; I’d simply say that seeing bootprints on Mars is imperative for the long-term survival of our species.

Not only is it human nature to explore strange new worlds, should the worst happen to Earth, at least our gene pool will extend beyond terrestrial shores. But the Martian goal needs to be set in stone now, and not referred to as something that we can do in the distant, undefined future — these uncertainties fracture public support and, ultimately, undermine any manned space program.

Manned space exploration can invigorate society in ways we’ll never fully appreciate. A Mars mission would be the pinnacle of human experience, inspiring generations and developing technologies we didn’t know we even needed. And the ultimate goal of actually settling a community on Mars? Well, that could ensure the survival of mankind.

As Stephen Hawking would say: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. But to get those eggs to Mars, we’d better start planning now; the endeavor might just make mankind great again.

Image: What lies beneath the Martian soil? Mars Lander Phoenix, plus scoop, in 2008 (NASA)