Saturday, July 9, 2011

To Die on Mars

  Today was a milestone in the American Space Program, the last launch of the space shuttle.  I think it's a low point.  When Atlantis took off today, I lost my chance for a bucket list item: to witness a shuttle launch in person.  I saw it live on TV, but didn't get to feel the ground shake or witness the near bright-as-the-sun rocket flame.  Well, they say there will be more launches in the future, apparently in the 2020s, but I don't think its a sure thing.  First the Ares program was on, then off, then Orion, sort of; and now, whatever.  The fact remains that thousands of shuttle workers will be fired/furloughed/let go, and with them goes a huge brain trust of experience in the nuances of manned space exploration.  Not everything we know is in books, and lost knowledge can be difficult to recoup.
  Many people are hopeful of commercial enterprises and other countries taking up the challenge, but none of them are working on anything more than satellite and tourist carriers, and low earth orbit cargo vessels.   That's sad.  For a brief time, NASA was working on a plan to re-establish a presence on the moon, and probably use it as a stepping stone to Mars.  Those are still intentional plans, but no hard plan exists to achieve them.  Nor is there any money.
  As a kid I was an astronomy nut, had memorized all the northern hemisphere constellations and the names of many stars.  I knew the distances to the planets, their known moons, and observed as much as I could through my Tasco 100-power telescope.  We already knew that a human trip to Venus was a pointless goal; a trip to Mars, however, was a tantalizingly realistic pursuit.  Consider this; forget about space suits.  On a "hot" martian day (+32 degrees F), with clothing and supplemental oxygen equipment similar to that used by mountain climbers, you could walk the surface of Mars.
  I am reconciled to the fact that no human will walk on Mars in my lifetime.  Surely there are better uses for the money, and so much suffering and uncertainty in the world today begs solutions worthy of the full efforts of our best minds.  But the reality of human existence is that at any given time, all possible endeavors are being explored to some extent by somebody, somewhere.  That includes all the good and ill that we humans are capable of.  What we are not capable of is limiting ourselves to looking either exclusively inward or outward; as a race, we are always doing some of both.  If space exploration can be thought of as part of our efforts to improve ourselves as human beings, then it is never an idle pursuit of the privileged, but instead a noble pursuit of the enlightened.
  Recently I read that a simple paradigm shift of thought would make the trip to Mars vastly easier.  For a moment it shocked me, but here it is: whoever goes there, stays there.  Planning on a one way trip immediately eliminates some difficult logistics problems.  And surprisingly, there would be no lack of volunteers.  I even considered it something I might do had I the chance.  But if I were going, it would have to be with the understanding that I want to explore all over, and not just settle into some bare-bones existence, huddled into a small underground enclosure.  No, they'd have to send a lot of self-sustaining goodies along with me and the crew, and plan on frequent CARE packages.  It's the least they can do if I'm going to die on another planet.  But how cool would that be...

1 comment:

AuPair Extraordinaire said...

That took me by surprise as well when you said that whoever went to Mars just wouldn't come back. But you're right, that would take out all the logistics of figuring out how to get them back to Earth. And wow, to die on another planet? Crazy! What a trippy thought! I wonder if I'll even see that in my lifetime. Who knows.

I would have loved to see a launch in person, too. But I'm positive you wanted it even more since you've seen the entire program take flight.. (pun intended).

And I'm always interested to hear about your life before us kids showed up :) I didn't know about your fascination with astronomy!