Space Architecture

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Going to Mars Alone, Or, A Better Approach

Yesterday, on Slashdot, there was an article by Nancy Yatkinson. She describes a proposal by Jim McLane to send someone to Mars solo, arguing that:

"'When we eliminate the need to launch off Mars, we remove the mission’s most daunting obstacle,' said McLane. And because of a small crew size, the spacecraft could be smaller and the need for consumables and supplies would be decreased, making the mission cheaper and less complicated".

He goes on to say that more supplies, people, and equipment would follow, though returning to Earth would not be possible. As some people responded, this idea only really makes sense if one is planning on colonizing Mars. Otherwise, this is a dramatic suicide mission, or at least a lifetime prison sentence with scientific endeavours attached.

This idea would provoke a media firestorm, a Congressional protest, and many questions from the House Committee on Science and Technology. Barring very unusual circumstances, NASA is not likely to do this. I would doubt that private space firms would do this, out of liability and shareholder concerns.

If this idea were to actually go through, I would like to know the following things:

1) What studies were performed to show that extended isolation, lasting for years, would not lead to a decline in morale on the part of the explorer?

2) Is NASA, or the organization responsible, prepared for the media response in the event that the explorer dies en route or on Mars, for whatever cause? Can the organization prepare for the nightmare scenario and still carry on with the mission?

3) Define whether or not colonization is the major driver for not bringing astronauts back to Earth.

4) If colonization is the driver, why send just one? What are the costs (where are the spreadsheets) comparing sending six astronauts to Mars, and bringing them back, versus sending the minimum number to prevent inbreeding?

5) If colonization is not, why the one-way trip? How do costs compare for bringing the explorer back, versus continually sending him new supplies and replacement equipment?

6) If this is just to prove that going to Mars is possible, then hasn't this been done before, only with the Moon? Stop treating space like it's Mt. Everest, and more like undeveloped prairie.

The last thing NASA needs is another public failure. An ongoing controversy about a single human spending his time doing only what one person can do is hardly better.

I propose removing the legal barriers that intimidate private space development. If colonization is the long-term goal of NASA, and humanity's necessary "life insurance policy", then encouraging the migration of people off-world is necessary. A single shot publicity stunt is not good public policy, a bad investment, and irrational if one wants to see long-lasting, self-supporting population growth off-world.


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