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Monday, May 27, 2013

Reading List: Mission to Mars

Aldrin, Buzz with Leonard David. Mission to Mars. Washington, National Geographic Society, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4262-1017-4.
As Buzz Aldrin (please don't write to chastise me for misstating his name: while born as Edwin Eugene Aldrin, Jr., he legally changed his name to Buzz Aldrin in 1988) notes, while Neil Armstrong may have been the first human to step onto the Moon, he was the first alien from another world to board a spacecraft bound for Earth (but how can he be sure?). After those epochal days in July of 1969, Aldrin, more than any other person who went to the Moon, has worked energetically to promote space exploration and settlement, developing innovative mission architectures to expand the human presence into the solar system. This work continues his intellectual contributions to human space flight which began with helping to develop the techniques of orbital rendezvous still employed today and pioneering neutral-buoyancy training for extra-vehicular activity, which enabled him to perform the first completely successful demonstration of work in orbit on Gemini XII.

In this book Aldrin presents his “Unified Space Vision” for the next steps beyond the home planet. He notes that what we know about the Moon today is very different from the little we mostly guessed when he set foot upon that world. Today it appears that the lunar polar regions may have abundant resources of water which provide not only a source of oxygen for lunar settlers, but electrolysed by abundant solar power, a source of rocket fuel for operations beyond the Earth. Other lunar resources may allow the fabrication of solar panels from in situ materials, reducing the mass which must be launched from the Earth. Aldrin “cyclers” will permit transfers between the Earth and Moon and the Earth and Mars with little expenditure of propellant.

Aldrin argues that space, from low Earth orbit to the vicinity of the Moon, be opened up to explorers, settlers, and entrepreneurs from all countries, private and governmental, to discover what works and what doesn't, and which activities make economic sense. To go beyond, however, he argues that the U.S. should take the lead, establishing a “United Strategic Space Enterprise” with the goal of establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2035. He writes, “around 2020, every selected astronaut should consign to living out his or her life on the surface of Mars.”

And there's where it all falls apart for me. It seems to me the key question that is neither asked nor answered when discussing the establishment of a human settlement on Mars can be expressed in one word: “why?” Yes, I believe that long-term survival of humans and their descendants depends upon not keeping everything in one planetary basket, and I think there is tremendously interesting science to be done on Mars, which may inform us about the origin of life and its dissemination among celestial bodies, the cycle of climate on planets and the influence of the Sun, and many other fascinating subjects. It makes sense to have a number of permanent bases on Mars to study these things, just as the U.S. and other countries have maintained permanent bases in Antarctica for more than fifty years. But I no longer believe that the expansion of the human presence in the solar system is best accomplished by painfully clawing our way out of one deep gravity well only to make a long voyage and then make an extremely perilous descent into another one (the Martian atmosphere is thick enough you have to worry about entry heating, but not thick enough to help in braking to landing speed). Once you're on Mars, you only have solar power half the time, just as on Earth, and you have an atmosphere which is useless to breathe.

Even though few people take it seriously any more, Gerard K. O'Neill's vision of space settlements in The High Frontier (May 2013) makes far more sense to me. Despite Aldrin's enthusiasm for private space ventures, it seems to me that his vision for the exploration and settlement of Mars will be, for at least the first decades, the kind of elitist venture performed by civil servants that the Apollo Moon landings were. In this book he envisions no economic activity on Mars which would justify the cost of supporting an expanding human presence there. Now, wealthy societies may well fund a few bases, just as they do in the Antarctic, but that will never reach what O'Neill calls the point of “ignition”—where the settlement pays for itself and can fund its own expansion by generating economic value sufficient to import its needs and additional settlers. O'Neill works out in great detail how space settlements in cislunar space can do this, and I believe his economic case, first made in the 1970s, has not only never been refuted but is even more persuasive today.

Few people have thought as long and hard about what it takes to make our species a spacefaring civilisation as Buzz Aldrin, nor worked so assiduously over decades to achieve that goal. This is a concise summation of his view for where we should go from here. I disagree with much of his strategy, but hey, when it comes to extraterrestrial bodies, he's been there and I haven't. This is a slim book (just 272 pages in the hardback edition), and the last 20% is a time line of U.S. space policies by presidential administrations, including lengthy abstracts of speeches, quoted from space.com.

Posted at May 27, 2013 23:16