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Future Surf

Mars or Bust!

I wonder if the kids in my third grade class are disappointed.

It was 1973; I was 7 years old. The Apollo missions were coming to a close, and I presented a report to my class about the space program. The United States would be going to Mars next-- I was certain of it. I even had glossy paintings of astronauts wandering around the red sandy deserts of Mars, digging up rocks, water, and life. According to the experts, we'd be there by 1983.

Unfortunately, things turned out a bit differently. The public got bored with space. Two Viking landers and a massive federal deficit later, Mars still seems out of reach.

This may soon change. An increasing number of people-- scientists and civilians alike-- are pushing for a manned journey to Mars in the early part of the next century. The recent discovery of the possibility of life on Mars has given further momentum to the drive to explore our neighbor. For many who look towards Mars, the goal of these missions would not be merely planting the flag and leaving footprints; the ultimate goal is nothing short of colonization.

The Target

Mars, moreso than any other planet in our solar system, symbolizes a human future in space.

Familiar, yet alien, Mars provoked the imagination in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (from Schiaparelli's canali to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds). It continues to do so today, albeit with a more serious scientific component. Mars is the planet with the best possibility of harboring extraterrestrial life: it has a visible liquid water history, past and possible present internal tectonic/volcanic heating, and a good atmospheric mix. For the very same reasons, Mars would be the clear first candidate for terraforming.

Are these possibilities mutually exclusive, however? If we found evidence of life on Mars, would it be morally right to terraform the planet, undoubtedly destroying the Martian life in the wild? Moreover, even if we didn't find life on Mars, should we still attempt to transform this alien world into one more Earth-like?

This latter question is at the core of one of the best examples of Mars fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars). The story of the first hundred colonists on Mars, with political battles between the terraformers (the Greens) and those who want Mars to remain wild (the Reds) as well as an explosive push for independence from Earth, is both compelling fiction and seductive political theory. I would recommend the chapter in Blue Mars about writing the new Mars Constitution to anyone who is thinking seriously about politics in the information age.

Getting There

Colonizing Mars isn't just a science fiction plot for some. Increasingly, Mars is a viable next step in human history. Perhaps the most persuasive idea to emerge among Mars Mission boosters is Robert Zubrin's Mars Prize concept. As described in the November/December 1996 issue of MIT's Technology Review, the Mars Prize is a $20 Billion payout to the first group able to deliver a human crew to Mars and return them safely. Zubrin, in the MIT piece (and in his Mars Direct Manned Mission home page), spells out in detail how such a task could be accomplished for far less than $20B, leaving a tidy profit for the winner. The use of a flat financial incentive is a clever spin. The U.S. government would not have to worry about cost overruns, and only needs to pay out if somebody actually succeeds in going to Mars!

Zubrin's plan is fascinating, in part because it leads directly to an occupied colony on Mars within the first two decades of the mission. Zubrin, a former senior engineer at Lockheed-Martin and the current President of the National Space Society, is confident that Mars could be explored using largely off-the-shelf technology; while new material and energy developments would be welcome, they are not required for a successful mission. Furthermore, he focuses on using Martian resources to generate the fuel for the habitats, rovers, and Earth Return Vehicles, rather than trying to carry all necessary supplies from Earth (as Zubrin suggests, the Lewis and Clark expedition would never have left if they had been forced to bring enough food and fuel for their entire voyage to and from the Pacific).

Zubrin is not the only one with a plan. The Case for Mars conference in July of 1996 was an international meeting of engineers, scientists, and interested civilians focusing on getting to Mars and staying. Zubrin participated, as did senior officials from NASA, JPL, and academia. The CFM site includes abstracts of papers on the economics of exploration, terraforming, and the engineering obstacles to be overcome. Other useful and interesting links to exploring Mars include Tom Gunn's Mars Home Page, and a group known as The First Millennial Foundation, which sees a Mars colony as only an early step to the eventual colonization of the entire galaxy.

They are planning for a very long term future.

The Future Is Now

While these websites push us towards a trip to Mars in the future, the United States, Russia, and Japan are moving quickly to launch probes now. As in this month.

The Mars Global Surveyor Mission was launched on November 6, and is scheduled to arrive in Mars orbit in September 1997. The MGS will undertake a detailed study of the Martian environment, including both geologic and climatic elements. NASA has learned its lesson about generating enthusiasm-- daily weather reports from Mars will be made available to media outlets and teachers.

Leaving later but arriving first is the Mars Pathfinder Mission. Scheduled to launch December 2, 1996, this mission will combine a lander and the Mars Sojourner micro-rover. It should land on Mars on July 4th, 1997. The micro-rovers are way cool. Looking like a solar-powered radio-controlled toy, they are designed to be able to autonomously deal with environmental hazards and obstacles, take pictures, and test the Martian mineralogy with an X-Ray Spectrometer.

NASA's Center for Mars Exploration gives an overview of NASA's plans for Mars. Some are fairly ambitious; all are designed with public relations in mind. NASA is well aware that very often the best sort of PR comes from beautiful images. The Mars Photo Gallery at the National Space Science Data Center provides some absolutely spectacular photographs of Mars, including the infamous Face.

NASA isn't the only group trying to send a probe to Mars this year. The Russian Space Agency had the Mars96 probe. The ill-fated launch on November 15 carried an orbiter, two landers, and two penetrators to dig beneath the Martian surface. The Mars96 system was already two years delayed; it is likely that the loss of the probe has doomed the Russian scientific space program. Somewhat less ambitious in scope, the Japanese space agency ISAS has the Planet-B set to launch. This one will do a fly-by to study the interaction between the solar wind and the Martian atmosphere.

Mars Beckons

I believe that I will, one day, stand on the surface of Mars. I will be old, undoubtedly, and I certainly won't be among the first hundred people there. But I will go.

Mars is a tantalizing inspiration, a red beacon on the next step of the human journey. As we move into the coming millennium, Mars will be seen as the clear best goal for a society now looking towards the future. It will not be an easy task, nor a quick one. The Mars undertaking will demand our attention; it will force us to focus beyond the immediate pay-off. But we will be better people for it.

Let's go.

On a personal note, I should announce that I'm now the director of digital discourse at Global Business Network. While I retain my technology oversight role, my real job is hosting our own electronic conferences. Wish me luck.



rafeco said:

If you're looking for something that could change the face of civilization as we know it, the spread of tropical diseases to the rest of the world (or the mutation of existing diseases to new strains that can't be treated) have a much better chance for success than a disastrous run-in with an asteroid.

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