Thirty years ago today a group of scientists, grad students, and all around Mars enthusiasts wrapped up the four-day Case for Mars conference in Boulder, Colorado. While there, they drafted plans for a human Mars spacecraft that became enshrined—at least for a little while—in popular culture. A large spinning vessel consisting of three nearly identical ships and their landing craft, it was a serious attempt at defining a human mission to Mars. By the early 1990s, one of the Case for Mars participants, Carter Emmart, produced a beautifully detailed model of the spinning spacecraft that was placed on display in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Now, after a long absence, that model is back in public view.
Spinning to Mars The Space Review
The resurrection of Mars Sample Return The Space Review
There had been rumors for a couple of weeks that NASA would make a big announcement about Mars at one of the largest annual meetings of scientists, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in San Francisco. The rumors were about the possibility that NASA’s Curiosity rover had discovered something very interesting on Mars. As it turned out, the Curiosity science results, although interesting, were not nearly up to the hype. But NASA did make a major announcement at AGU: NASA is taking the first step towards the ultimate scientific goal for the red planet, Mars Sample Return.
You can be forgiven if you missed it, because NASA was careful not to use the words “Mars Sample Return” in their press release. Instead, they announced that they are going to build another rover, based on the successful Curiosity design and using some spare parts manufactured for Curiosity, to be launched in 2020. In the official press release, NASA stated that the instrument suite is still to be determined. But make no mistake, this is the first step toward sample return, and in many ways represents a major reversal for the Obama Administration.
To understand what happened, you have to know the context.
The Mars Consortium 2011 The Space Review
By now you can see what a quagmire gaining public support or government funding can be. This is why for several years I have been working on a concept called “The Mars Consortium”. The advantage of this concept is that it takes the cost issue out of the equation by involving the private sector as mission lead. It does not mean that the private sector pays for everything, as that is unrealistic, but it does mean that they lead the way and work with governments where possible in partnership to send humans to Mars and permanently reduce the cost of space access.
This, then, is a framework for how this might all start. SpaceX has the cheapest large rockets available today and any human mission to Mars within a private/public consortium would do well to focus their plans on this company at this time. They provide access to the cheapest space transportation means at present.
The goal would be to first organize a gathering of potential consortium partners to discuss a framework for moving ahead and what the specific strategy would be to get humans to Mars quickly and with the twin benefit of making space access cheaper. Their goal should be to get a crew to Mars in the shortest possible time, to beat governments to that goal, and, by doing so, to awaken many governments and their populations as to their weaknesses. That first mission would need to be cheap and light but also ensure that a long-term program was the objective. If it could be kept below $5 billion, it’s likely a profit could be made from that first mission.
Planet Hollywood, part 2: Red Planet The Space Review
They don’t set movies on Mercury. Venus either. Or Jupiter or Saturn for that matter. Oh, certainly there are a few movies set on Venus. 2001 had the spaceship Discovery going to Jupiter, because Stanley Kubrick thought it would be too difficult to depict Saturn on the big screen. Doug Trumbull, who did the special effects for 2001, decided to set his own movie, Silent Running, at Saturn just to show it could be done (see “The green green grass of Earth”, The Space Review, March 2, 2009). There was also the barely tolerable Saturn 3 set at, well, Saturn—so that makes two for Saturn. And the ridiculously awful Event Horizon was set at Neptune, which provided a creepy backdrop for the haunted house in space story that had been done much better in numerous other movies. But you get the point: science fiction movies set in our own solar system don’t go to many planets.
They all go to Mars.
It is a cliché, but Mars captures the human imagination like no other planetary body except, maybe, the Moon. Other than Earth, it’s the planet that has been the subject of the most books and movies, a result of its ancient mystique and the fact that when you are outside on a very dark night, out in the middle of nowhere, where the city lights don’t spoil the night sky, Mars is so damn weird. A bright red spark that is both alluring and ominous.
Planet Hollywood, part 1: Mission to Mars The Space Review
It’s not exactly a revelation that Hollywood is filled with thieves and hacks who steal each others’ ideas. There are numerous examples of similar movies coming out in the same year. This happens when writers and/or studios get wind of a script circulating through Tinseltown and decide to emulate (aka “copy”, aka “steal”) it. That’s what happened back in 2000 when we were treated to not one, but two movies about missions to Mars. Before they premiered, space enthusiasts were excited that they were finally going to see reasonably realistic depictions of the near-term human exploration of Mars. The movies were Mission to Mars and Red Planet. It’s not hard to guess at the origins of both of these movies. It usually takes about two to three years to make a movie. In summer 1997 NASA’s Mars Pathfinder rover landed on the surface of the fourth rock from the Sun and gained tremendous publicity for NASA. It undoubtedly led Touchstone Pictures and Warner Brothers to greenlight Mars-themed movies. Something similar happened when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into Jupiter in 1994; in 1998 there were two movies about saving the Earth from an incoming space rock: Armageddon and Deep Impact.
Why is human Mars exploration so surprisingly hard? The Space Review
As space policy experts mull over alternative strategies for astronaut exploration of the solar system, possibly including human flight to Mars, the recently-concluded fortieth anniversary celebrations of the Apollo 11 moon landing inspire one specific question: what’s taken so long?
In the heady days of the Apollo triumphs, even the “pessimistic” forecasts imagined it might take as long as twenty years to get astronauts to Mars. Optimistic schedules put the first footsteps on the Red Planet—another “giant leap for mankind”—as early as 1982.
When it didn’t happen in fifteen or twenty years, or even in twice that period, or even by current plans by twice again that period, the question naturally arose: why not? Had the national will failed? Had our adventurous culture lost its nerve?
Review: Mars Wars The Space Review
Next January will mark the fourth anniversary of President George W. Bush’s speech at NASA Headquarters that unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration, the long-term plan that gave the space agency a new direction, away from the space shuttle and space station and towards a human return to the Moon and, eventually, human missions to Mars. At that time the announcement drew comparisons to the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), the last major effort by a president to reshape the direction of NASA, with corresponding concerns that the Vision would meet a similar, unfortunate fate. Yet the Vision is alive and well today (despite some concerns about its implementation), while SEI had effectively been dead long before it could reach its fourth anniversary. What caused SEI to fail, and what lessons did its failure provide future initiatives, like the Vision? These are questions explored in depth by Thor Hogan’s history of SEI, Mars Wars. The book (which can be ordered for $15 from NASA’s web site or read online for free) is, at its core, a thorough history of the SEI.
Strategies for Martian exploration The Space Review
There has been no shortage of ideas of how to send humans to Mars. From the
The Great (well, OK) Space Debate The Space Review
Operation Public Eye The Space Review
With the advent of small probes using high technology, it’s now possible to build and fly spacecraft on a budget similar to a Hollywood blockbuster movie, about $200 million. With another couple decades before the first manned mission to Mars begins its ramp up to launch, the cost of flying a small but very capable spacecraft to the Red Planet should drop still more. That would put it within the budget of a consortium of news organizations, if not quite within reach of any one.