|Tuesday, 20 January 2004|
If humans get to Mars, what might they do?
By Deborah Zabarenko, WASHINGTON, (Reuters)
If humans ever get to Mars, what might they do there? Would they use spare weapons-grade plutonium to heat up the red planet to a more Earth-like temperature, as one fanciful-sounding plan suggested?
Probably not, according to Humboldt Mandell, a former chief of NASA's Mars programs. But he said a favoured Mars exploration plan could be considerably quicker than the White House proposal for a moon base to be used as a stepping stone for a human mission to our next-door planetary neighbour.
Some NASA officials wondered privately before the announcement why they had been left out of discussions about the presidential program.
Still, Mandell, a 40-year NASA veteran who left a year ago to become a research fellow at the University of Texas Center for Space Research, said the U.S. space agency has the technical know-how to accomplish the moon and Mars missions, though not necessarily as the White House envisions.
For a start, Mandell said in a telephone interview that while a permanent moon base was possible, it would double the cost of any human mission to Mars.
"I have no objection to building a moon base, but if you're going to go to Mars, the cheapest way to do it is to base it on the Earth and then make Mars the second safest place in the solar system for humans, and then send the humans to Mars," Mandell said.
He said there would be "logistical nightmares" lurking in the plan to transport equipment and humans to the moon and then launch a mission to Mars from there.
"With one-third of the NASA budget, in six or seven years you could be at Mars," Mandell said. "It doesn't compute with me to try to drag it out."
A faster method - ranging in price from $20 billion to $100 billion as opposed to an earlier NASA estimate of about $400 billion - would be to build a beachhead on Mars before humans arrive, he said.
"The right way to do this job is to build a little village there before you ever send humans," Mandell said. "You'd put Winnebago-size (bus-size) payloads there and they would connect to each other robotically."
These payloads would include living quarters, hospital and kitchen - "all the things that you need to sustain a crew of six or seven people for a year and a half," he said.
This would include a plant to produce water from the ice that might be available beneath the martian surface.
The water would be for human use during the mission, and could then be split into hydrogen and oxygen to fuel the trip back to Earth, according to Mandell.
This scenario estimates a six- or seven-month travel time from Earth to Mars, an 18-month stay and another six or seven months for the voyage home.
The space shuttle fleet, grounded since the fatal Columbia accident on Feb. 1, 2003, would have only a small role in this plan, carrying crew members to the Mars craft as it moved in Earth orbit, Mandell said. The Mars vessel would go from Earth orbit to Mars.
Mandell acknowledged that research has been done on various Mars exploration ideas over the decades, including plans to tap any oases on Mars, to use any resources on the planet as propulsion systems and to use spare weapons-grade plutonium to heat up the planet - where the average temperature is a minus 81 degrees F (minus 63C) - to a more human-friendly temperature.
This last idea is known as terraforming, and Mandell rejected it out of hand.
"I'm one of those people that's conscientiously against terraforming," he said. "It may be technically possible. But to think about taking the most deadly element that's known to humanity, like plutonium, and mucking up Mars with it, to me that borders on the immoral."
Produced by Lake House