November 30th, 2004

The Lame Duck that Soared Tech Central Station

When the history of this lame duck Congress is written, historians may make little notes about the dustup over intelligence reform. However, their long memories are likely to record that, by funding the President’s space initiative, this was a lame duck that soared. The $16.2 billion that Congress authorized for NASA, a five percent increase in its budget, made it official that mankind is headed outwards again — to the moon, to Mars, and beyond. The House also passed a revised commercial space bill, which just a short time ago, was pronounced deader than Tom Daschle’s political career.

February 6th, 2004

Mars Mirage Tech Central Station

Perhaps our next Mars probe should be called the Tinkerbell. The fairy from “Peter Pan” was brought to life by children shouting, “I do believe in fairies! I do! I do!” The same chorus of belief in Martians resounds with each downpour of images and data from the apparently dead Red Planet. The photos sent home by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity have already set off a flurry of Internet chatter amongst amateur space enthusiasts. Would be astrobiologists (a new field that weds astronomy with biology) claim to see everything from fossilized coral and seashells to an admittedly creepy looking claw. The European Space Agency’s orbiting Mars Express has produced an image to fire speculation too — a grainy object that some identify as a stepped pyramid with an underground entrance.

October 14th, 2003

China’s New Frontier Tech Central Station

China has announced that it plans a manned space launch this week, and it’s already revving up the propaganda machine to take advantage of the event. The theme – and particularly the subtext — is that China is now a superpower, too. Superpowers have manned space programs, and now China will have one, so. . . . I don’t mean to make fun of this, because it’s actually a good thing. American astronauts, Russian cosmonauts, and now Chinese “taikonauts,” all represent something better than run-of-the-mill superpower competition. If China thinks that putting a human being in orbit does more for its international prestige than, say, invading Taiwan and perhaps setting off another World War, that’s to everyone’s advantage.

August 15th, 2003

Close Encounter Tech Central Station

This year Mars and the earth will be extraordinarily close — on August 27 the earth will sweep closer than 35 million miles to Mars. It’s enough to give earthlings Mars Fever. Not since the deep ice of the last glaciation swept across much of cold northern Europe and North America, not since the wooly rhinoceros ran through southern France, not since modern man’s close relative Neandertalensis dominated the caves of western Europe, not for more than 59,000 years has Mars been so near the earth.

January 22nd, 2003

Destination: Mars Tech Central Station

Recent reports from the Los Angeles Times and indicate that President Bush may announce a spectacular new Mars initiative, aimed at putting humans on Mars by 2010. Having been through this with a previous President Bush, who announced similar plans only to see them shot down, interestingly enough, by the maneuverings of NASA bureaucrats, I confess to a bit of skepticism. But there’s reason to think that this time it could work.

June 12th, 2002

We the People of Mars… Tech Central Station

In response to a column of mine on Mars a few weeks back, reader Philip Shropshire posted a comment asking: “I’m curious as to what you think. Would you prefer to live under the American constitution on Mars or a new constitution that you designed yourself…in case you’re looking for next week’s column material.” Well, I’m always happy with suggestions for new columns, but this isn’t actually all that new an idea. In fact, the Smithsonian Institution, in cooperation with Boston University’s Center for Democracy, produced a set of principles for creating a new constitution to govern human societies on Mars, and elsewhere in outer space; fellow lawyer John Ragosta and I drafted an alternative proposal that was published in the American Bar Association’s journal of law, science and technology, Jurimetrics.

May 29th, 2002

Creating a Martian Chronicle Tech Central Station

As Webb Wilder says, I can’t predict the future, but I can take a hint. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about Mars, and specifically about the prospects and pitfalls of visits to Mars, colonies on Mars, and longer-term efforts to modify the climate of Mars so as to make it more hospitable to humans. In particular, I wrote last week about some environmentalists’ likely opposition to terraforming – or even visiting – Mars. No sooner did I start this enterprise than news events began to fall into place. First came the story of environmental activists’ efforts to ban lunar development by designating the Moon a World Heritage Site. Then there were concerns about humans being exposed to Martian chemicals on visits there. Next came news that water ice has been found, in “vast” quantities, frozen just below the surface of Mars. There were even reports that NASA might be getting serious about plans for a human, rather than simply a robotic, mission to Mars in the not-too distant future.

May 22nd, 2002

Environmental Impact Tech Central Station

Last week I wrote about environmental issues growing out of human missions to Mars, and the obligation of the United States (and other space powers) under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to prevent “harmful contamination” of Mars. But what about beneficial contamination? Mars, as far as we can tell, is a dead world. Even if it turns out to host some forms of life, they are almost certain to be limited to bacteria, akin to the extremophiles that populate places like volcanoes, undersea thermal vents, and deep subsurface rock formations, and their distribution is likely to be similarly circumscribed. Algae would be big, big news. But Mars needn’t remain dead (or near-dead). For several decades people have been looking at “terraforming” Mars by giving it an earthlike – or at least more earthlike – climate. (For the technically inclined, there is a superb engineering textbook on the subject, Martyn Fogg’s Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments, a thoroughly practical book published by the thoroughly practical SAE).

May 15th, 2002

The Mars Bug Tech Central Station

Imagine that you’ve got a lot of money. No, more than that. A lot of money. Now imagine that you want to go to Mars. Oh, you already do? Me too. Then imagine that with your money you’ve built a spaceship — perhaps along the lines of Bob Zubrin’s Mars Direct mission architecture, though for our purposes the details don’t matter. If you prefer, you may substitute antigravity or the Mannschenn Drive as your mechanism of choice. Regardless of technology, you’ve got a craft that will take you to Mars and back, in one piece, along with sufficient supplies on the outbound leg and some samples when you come back. You’re going to find out firsthand what Viking couldn’t settle: whether there’s life on Mars. You’ll also do some research aimed at laying the groundwork for Martian colonization. Are you ready to go? Not quite. You see, there might be life on Mars. Well, duh. That’s what you’re going to find out, isn’t it? Yes. But if you find it’s there, then what?

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