So, When Do We Land On Mars?

07/20/2009 10:06 AM |

Years ago when I was traveling in Spain, I went on a road trip to a small Costa Blanca beach town with a carful of dyspeptic British ex-pats. One night we were driving on a quiet road in the hills above the town when, apropos of nothing in particular, one of my backseat companions pointed out her window at the full moon overhead and said, “I know it’s a horrible cliché and all, but does anyone else ever look at the moon and think, my god, people have stood on that?”

And for a moment the car went silent as we all stopped complaining about our hotel or bitching about the meal we’d just had or whatever it was we’d been doing, and thought to ourselves “wow, she’s right, that’s really something.

You couldn’t do this with Mars. It’s too hard to see. Had someone tried there would have just been some squinting, a bit of confused pointing perhaps, and maybe some arguing about which direction was south. Then we all would have shrugged and gone back to fiddling with the car radio.

Nonetheless, with the 40th anniversary of the moon landing now upon us, it’s only natural to wonder when we might get around to paying the Red Planet a visit. The last time the notion of a mission to Mars made widespread headlines was in 2004 when President Bush, perhaps sensing that his gambit to remake the Middle East wasn’t shaking out so well, announced “a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system.” This plan became “Constellation” — NASA’s current human spaceflight program, which calls for the development of new spacecraft and booster vehicles to replace the space shuttle (set to be decommissioned in 2010) and for manned trips to the moon and, eventually, Mars.

“Eventually,” however, can be a tricky deadline to pin down. For instance, in 1989 (on the 20th anniversary of the moon landing), Bush pere made his own Mars headlines, announcing a goal of landing astronauts on the planet by 2019. Shortly thereafter, though, NASA came to him with an estimated $400 billion price tag for the project, and, well, suddenly everyone was a little less excited about the idea than they’d been before.

The current timeline puts a Mars landing at about 25 years out, an estimate that probably sits on the reliability spectrum somewhere between Amy Winehouse and a weekend F train. Interestingly (at least for a naif like myself for whom the idea of a trip to Mars still seems more Buck Rogers than potential reality), the issue isn’t technology, or even money really. It’s essentially just a matter of priorities and politics.

One Comment

  • Bravo, Mr. Bonislawski, for a solid take on the issue. I agree that the U.S. government doesn’t have, or rather won’t allocate sufficient funds to do a manned Mars mission any time soon but they shouldn’t have to. Seems to me that with modern telecommunications we could allow just about anybody who wants to to send materiel to Mars to wait in a parking orbit for use by humans there.

    Why does that matter? Because shipping just cargo is much cheaper per pound that shipping everything in one vessel, especially if you can afford to use a slower path. MUCH cheaper.

    Afaic, NASA should announce that if you can meet certain specs and can get your stuff there for Marsnauts to use, they’ll use it. That being done, we should see no shortage of states, companies and just plain old enthusiasts boosting their signature goods for use by Our Proud Mars Heroes. It won’t be the arrogant ones (NY, California, etc.) who already get plenty of publicity. It’ll the insecure ones. The ones who have decent revenues and whose state legislatures will be delighted to say “we’re just as good as you are and we’ll prove it!” North Carolina will subcontract to Research Triangle firms to ship local blueberries and clothes made of their cotton. Wisconsin will ship cheese. San Antonio will ship, I dunno, barbeque.

    But the point is, with payloads that can be as small as five or ten pounds and the ability to boost fast and travel slow (both save TONS of fuel per pound and cut rocket size waaay down), technology is more than good enough to allow this kind of thing right now.

    And the beauty part? Managed well, it’ll cost NASA *maybe* ten cents on the dollar to doing it themselves.