Monday, November 15, 2010
Scientists propose one-way trips to Mars
Invoking the spirit of "Star Trek" in a scholarly article entitled "To Boldly Go," two scientists contend human travel to Mars could happen much more quickly and cheaply if the missions are made one-way. They argue that it would be little different from early settlers to North America, who left Europe with little expectation of return. "The main point is to get Mars exploration moving," said Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University, who wrote the article in the latest "Journal of Cosmology" with Paul Davies of Arizona State University. The colleagues state -- in one of 55 articles in the issue devoted to exploring Mars -- that humans must begin colonizing another planet as a hedge against a catastrophe on Earth. Mars is a six-month flight away, possesses surface gravity, an atmosphere, abundant water, carbon dioxide and essential minerals. They propose the missions start by sending two two-person teams, in separate ships, to Mars. More colonists and regular supply ships would follow. The technology already exists, or is within easy reach, they wrote.
An official for NASA said the space agency envisions manned missions to Mars in the next few decades, but that the planning decidedly involves round trips. President Obama informed NASA last April that he "'believed by the mid-2030s that we could send humans to orbit Mars and safely return them to Earth. And that a landing would soon follow,'" said agency spokesman Michael Braukus. No where did Obama suggest the astronauts be left behind. "We want our people back," Braukus said. Retired Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell, who walked on the Moon, was also critical of the one-way idea. "This is premature," Mitchell wrote in an e-mail. "We aren't ready for this yet." Davies and Schulze-Makuch say it's important to realize they're not proposing a "suicide mission." "The astronauts would go to Mars with the intention of staying for the rest of their lives, as trailblazers of a permanent human Mars colony," they wrote, while acknowledging the proposal is a tough sell for NASA, with its intense focus on safety. They think the private sector might be a better place to try their plan. "What we would need is an eccentric billionaire," Schulze-Makuch said. "There are people who have the money to put this into reality." Indeed, British tycoon Richard Branson, PayPal founder Elon Musk and Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos are among the rich who are involved in private space ventures. Isolated humans in space have long been a staple of science fiction movies, from "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" to "2001: A Space Odyssey" to a flurry of recent movies such as "Solaris" and "Moon." In many of the plots, the lonely astronauts fall victim to computers, madness or aliens. Psychological profiling and training of the astronauts, plus constant communication with Earth, will reduce debilitating mental strains, the two scientists said. "They would in fact feel more connected to home than the early Antarctic explorers," according to the article. But the mental health of humans who spent time in space has been extensively studied. Depression can set in, people become irritated with each other, and sleep can be disrupted, the studies have found. The knowledge that there is no quick return to Earth would likely make that worse. Davies is a physicist whose research focuses on cosmology, quantum field theory, and astrobiology. He was an early proponent of the theory that life on Earth may have come from Mars in rocks ejected by asteroid and comet impacts. Schulze-Makuch works in the Earth Sciences department at WSU and is the author of two books about life on other planets. His focus is eco-hydrogeology, which includes the study of water on planets and moons of our solar system and how those could serve as a potential habitat for microbial life. The peer-reviewed Journal of Cosmology covers astronomy, astrobiology, Earth sciences and life. Schulze-Makuch and Davies contend that Mars has abundant resources to help the colonists become self-sufficient over time. The colony should be next to a large ice cave, to provide shelter from radiation, plus water and oxygen, they wrote. They believe the one-way trips could start in two decades. "You would send a little bit older folks, around 60 or something like that," Schulze-Makuch said, bringing to mind the aging heroes who save the day in "Space Cowboys." That's because the mission would undoubtedly reduce a person's lifespan, from a lack of medical care and exposure to radiation. That radiation would also damage human reproductive organs, so sending people of childbearing age is not a good idea, he said. There have been seniors in space, including John Glenn, who was 77 when he flew on the space shuttle in 1998. Still, Schulze-Makuch believes many people would be willing to make the sacrifice. The Mars base would offer humanity a "lifeboat" in the event Earth becomes uninhabitable, they said. "We are on a vulnerable planet," Schulze-Makuch said. "Asteroid impact can threaten us, or a supernova explosion. If we want to survive as a species, we have to expand into the solar system and likely beyond."