Wednesday, September 02, 2009
You can see it here. Though the idea is a bit silly I should note that I'm still glad to see an op-ed of this type in the New York Times as it is a very good discussion to have.
The theme of the op-ed is basically this: the cost to send humans to Mars as being planned by NASA is so prohibitively expensive that there is simply no way for us to realistically expect the plans to be carried out on time, but that if we could simply get over the idea of needing to bring people back then we could accomplish the mission. After all, explorers of ancient times didn't expect to return home either - they got on a boat, set off on a journey of a few months to a few years, settled in a new location, and pretty much just toughed it out until more people and supplies were sent their way after which things got incrementally better with time.
This is a fairly good argument, but it raises the question: so why Mars? The same argument could be applied to any other potential location. The same idea could easily be applied to the Moon as well, by sending more supplies in the hopes for a greater chance of long-term success instead of giving astronauts the means to get home in the beginning. The Moon has locations in the south that receive sunlight all day year-round, so there's no problem there. Ceres is another location for which this argument can be made, because it's probably a better location for colonization anyway, with more frequent launch windows, weaker gravity, no uncertain weather or seasonal variation to worry about, and plenty of ice water.
The idea of sending people to another planet with a much higher probability of death is also a bit of a risk, since a failure would be disastrous for the program. At least with the Moon we always have the possibility of doing something from Earth within a few days to help the astronauts. Mars - well, you have to wait until the next launch window.
Personally, I think a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid should be NASA's next priority. Not only a good PR stunt (the most distant manned mission from Earth ever) and completely new territory, but it would also help us understand asteroids in much greater detail. Given that they are capable of wiping out entire cities as well as a very valuable potential resource, there are some very good reasons to send humans to one for a few weeks. After that...well, by then we'll know of a few dozen (or hundred) Earth-like planets in other solar systems and our view of space will hopefully have changed by then. If this new view of the universe gives us an added impetus for greater funding then so much the better. Don't forget that the problems we have in space could easily be solved by a public that simply demands that we do more.
In spite of all that I'd still make the one-way trip to Mars if given the chance, don't get me wrong. Who wouldn't want to see this or this in person? Mars isn't the only location in the Solar System with such magnificent desolation though.