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Mar 11 2013

The manned voyage to Mars

I was both intrigued and disturbed by the recent report of a plan called Inspiration Mars to send a human couple on a flyby of Mars in the year 2018, approaching the planet within 100 miles. The venture will be an entirely private one backed by a group known as the Inspiration Mars Foundation whose chair is Dennis Tito, who in 2001 became the first private person to go into space. They will of course draw on the vast expertise of NASA. Interestingly the only permission one needs to get is from the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates all spacecraft launches and returns.

The exploring couple would be confined to a small capsule of size 33 cubic meters for 501 days and there would be no back up plan if things go wrong. My first reaction to this news was that it was too premature and hurried and unduly risking the lives of two people. But on reflection I wondered why I was so uneasy. If adventure-seeking people want to take the risk of being pioneer explorers in space, should we stop them? Isn’t this what explorers have done for millennia, venturing into the unknown with no guarantee of return? Even now, we allow people to take all manner of risks all the time, just for the sake of a momentary thrill. Why should we prevent people from risking their lives in space?

The option of slowing down the process by a few years until they can make the risks smaller does not work because the catch is that there has to be a proper alignment of planets to make the trip feasible at all, and if they miss the January 2018 launch date, then the next window will be in 2031.

I think that my unease comes from the idea that if something were to go wrong, the couple would simply drift off into space, never to return. Unlike with most explorers, we would be in constant contact with them and yet be unable to do anything. It would be incredibly sad. Those who have seen the film 2001: A Space Odyssey will recall the poignant moment when due to HAL’s actions, one astronaut is cut loose from the spacecraft and drifts off into space.

Stephen Colbert gave his take on the project and in the process provides some details of how the mission will work.

(This clip was aired on March 5, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)

17 comments

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  1. 1
    tommykey

    What they should do is send an unmanned ship to Mars and then have it return as the first test run for a manned voyage. That way they will at least know if it is possible to return humans safely.

  2. 2
    left0ver1under

    This is not “exploring”, and it’s definitely not science. It’s foolhardiness and vanity. All space travel is vanity and nationalism, but that’s beside the point.

    It’s also should not be done on a shoestring budget. Keep Alan Shepard’s quote in mind:

    “It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

    If you think those building a private spacecraft wouldn’t cut corners and compromise safety, think about all the cost cutting and unsafe construction by KBR and other war profiteers in Iraq (e.g. bare wires that electrocuted people, tainted water, etc.).

    NASA may cost more, but anyone going would have a miniscule chance of survival. Those on any “privately funded” trip to Mars are guaranteed to die.

  3. 3
    The Lorax

    I think that’s a bit cynical, left0ver1under. I agree that a flyby would be a worthless mission (if you’re going to go all that distance, you should at least land) but claiming that anyone would have a zero chance of survival is just silly. We’ve sent many probes to Mars, and a slingshot maneuver is a hell of a lot easier than going into orbit. If anything, it would be a lot like the Apollo 8 mission, only with Mars instead of the Moon.

    Though, at least Apollo 8 was testing hardware, taking pictures, and doing science. Going into orbit around the Moon was still a challenge at the time; going into orbit around Mars is been-there-done-that. The only difference would be oxygen and food. And books… quite a few books…

    But it would still be wasteful. Historical maybe, but wasteful. A manned flyby mission, at this point, is silly. There’s nothing a human can do floating in space that a camera can’t do better, but there’s a lot a human can do on the ground better than any lander or rover.

  4. 4
    Eric Riley

    I would be willing to go if you could give me a 99% assurance that I would make it there (and, a say, 5% assurance that I could get back).

    left0ver1under – what’s your basis for the analysis that anyone going would have a ‘miniscule’ chance of survival (and what is ‘miniscule’ in this context?)? Do you think they’ll run out of food? Radiation damage? Problems with the recycling systems?

    While Colbert was making fun of the waste and water recycling, the ideas are valid, and these are not things that require any particularly new engineering (beyond making everything as light as possible).

    ~E

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    Exactly! I think we need to acknowledge that humans are pretty disposable and that space travel may be dangerous and if people want to do crazy pointless things like go to Mars, good for them.

    What will they learn on Mars that the rover can’t?

  6. 6
    invivoMark

    I have to take exception to your last sentence. I can’t imagine much of anything that a human can do on the ground better than a robot that can be designed, built, and sent for far cheaper.

  7. 7
    sailor1031

    I’m wondering if Tito’s group will have to license NASA proprietary data and expertise or will it be a gift?

    “…What will they learn on Mars that the rover can’t?” – Nothing. Less than Rover can, in fact, since they won’t land and they’ll use most payload space for two human bodies rather than scientific instrumentation. But at least they won’t be using dogs or monkeys.

  8. 8
    Jockaira

    I’m sure that Dennis Tito and associates do not believe for a minute that their Mars Fly-by mission will accomplish any significant scientific goals that could not be done more safely and perhaps more cheaply than robot missions.
    .
    They’re more intelligent than that.
    .
    There is one thing their mission can do that robots cannot: raise consciousness and enthusiasm for endeavors in space by humans. This mission will serve pretty much the same purpose as Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic. in which no useful scientific data was gleaned or intended. It should be noted for the pantywaists in the crowd that aviation in Lindberg’s day was many times more dangerous than today’s human space explorations.

  9. 9
    jamessweet

    That’s (mostly) true only if you know in advance all of the things you are going to want to do.

    This is somewhat of a silly hypothetical, but let’s say during the Curiosity mission, the geologists suddenly have some reason why it would be really informative to pick up a particular rock and chuck it through the air a few yards away. A human could do that with ease. Curiosity can’t. NASA could easily have built a robot that could do such a thing, but they can’t pre-build the robot to perform every conceivable action. It’s a silly example, but I’m sure NASA geologists could give you a better one.

    In practice, I dunno how much of an issue that’s going to be with the Curiosity mission — the whole point of the MSL is that it’s somewhat of a “kitchen sink”. But still, dollars to donuts, if you could ask the NASA scientists, I’m sure at some point in the mission there will be something that they wish Curiosity can do that it can’t, and that a human could be asked to do with ease.

    What can a human do that a robot can’t? Improvise.

  10. 10
    jamessweet

    All space travel is vanity and nationalism

    Heh, this reminds me of a Facebook photo that my wife has been really excited about, that shows negative words used to describe children’s behavior, and then equivalent positive words (e.g. “Fearful” becomes “Thoughtful, careful”; “Fussy” becomes “Discerning tastes and needs”; etc.). I think leftover1under needs a similar chart for describing space travel ;D

  11. 11
    MarkF

    The word “wasteful” is a strange one to use in regards to human space-travel. Humans spend billions of dollars on SUVs and BigMacs, and trillions of dollars blowing up third world countries. Yet a trip to another planet is wasteful? People have weird priorities.

    Sending people to Mars is like climbing Mount Everest or making Olympiadane — an awesome accomplishment worth during for its own sake. Any science that happens to get done is just a bonus.

  12. 12
    Lofty

    Humans can go to Mars and tell us what it smells like. A very important data point!

  13. 13
    im

    Landing humans on mars would be incredibly valuable. You would have all the rover instruments PLUS SAMPLE RETURN, and improvisation. The robots are barely scratching the surface of what’s possible. Plus some useful operations such as drilling cannot realistically be done by small robotic systems.

  14. 14
    im

    My guess is that you’d be much better for both of those chances. I mean, look at Apollo, and then consider our current techlevel. There was a time when we weren’t so timid.

  15. 15
    im

    First, ALL space hardware used by NASA was built by private corporations. Saturn 5 / Apollo that got men on the moon? A big mix of parts from many different aerospace corporations. Lockheed and Grumman were pretty big (I think Grumman basically made the entire lander). Shuttle? Same thing.

    Second, ‘guaranteed to die’ sounds like about the same class as ‘heavier than air flying machines is impossible’. These people are not stupid. They would not plan this project if they did not foresee their own success. There is a reason to capitalism.

    On vanity and nationalism: I am not sure whether I am more horrified at your shortsightedness (We should have started working on terraforming Mars for colonization back in the 1980s, riding on the success of an Orion Drive program or Apollo!) or your dislike of vanity and nationalism.

  16. 16
    im

    Agreed. Apollo did this. More than once. Plus manned missions that did everything except actually landing.

  17. 17
    MarkF

    Indeed.

    Just look at what a geologist can do with a shovel, a scratch kit, and some acid. There’s no reason astronauts couldn’t do some really good science on Mars even with quite limited supplies.

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