What do you think of Dennis Tito’s plan to send a married couple on a 501 day trip past Mars?
Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they’ll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.
I think it’s dumb. Three-course dumb, with a side-order of dumb.
What Tito’s apparently proposing is to jam two people into a sealed space the size of a large camper van – which means, in practise, that they will be living inside a commode after about Day 5 – soaked with radiation that will lift their chances of cancer by 3 percent. Or kill them, if there’s a solar flare. To get back, they have to endure a risky skip re-entry on Earth – where, if anything is wrong with the angle, they’ll incinerate on the first plunge or bounce into deep space forever, assuming the heat shield hasn’t broken. All that, just so they can scoot past the night side of Mars at interplanetary speeds. Uh – hello?
What happens if something breaks? Or one of them dies, leaving the other to spend eight or nine months trapped with the rotting corpse of their spouse? Ewwww.
Yeah, there’s the point of being the first humans to get near another planet, it’s heroic, the human spirit and the rest.
I took that into account when forming my opinion.
Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB ‘wet lab’ configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. The rocket stage accelerates them on the interplanetary transfer orbit, and once the LOX is burned, the astronauts move in and set up house (hence ‘wet’). NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
Flyby is not a new idea. The Soviets toyed with schemes in the 1960s, NASA studied ways of using Apollo hardware to send a modified Apollo CSM/Skylab on a Venus flyby. It was feasible, but the engineers couldn’t guarantee the astronauts would be alive at the end.
We know now they would likely have died. The mission was scheduled for 1973-74, and there was a coronal mass ejection on 5-6 July 1974, when the astronauts would have been in deep space on the return leg – heavy radiation, months away from home.
In the event, nobody could see much science from it anyway, and Congress killed the scheme on the drawing board in 1968, along with most of the rest of the Apollo Applications Programme.
To me, that zip science return is likely true of Tito’s Mars flyby, quite apart from the marginal safety of the venture. I suppose the FAA will see it the same way.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to Mars – but let’s do it properly. It comes down to energy. Chemical rockets don’t provide enough That’s why the journey takes so long – everything we send has to use a Hohmann-type transfer orbit.
Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.
The problem is that the laws of physics are clear about what can be done, and the more exotic your energy source, the harder it is to contain and direct it. We’re already pushing what metals, plastics and even carbon can do. However, the VASIMIR electric-ion system looks promising. In theory, VASIMIR might reach Mars in 39 days with the right planetary alignments - round trip in five months. That reduces the radiation, life-support and maintenance problems straight off.
There is one catch. Solar escape velocity at Earth’s orbit is 29.8 km/sec. Peak speed during the trip is 34 km/sec. If the motor breaks before your deceleration burn, you’re on a one-way trip to interstellar space. (“Goodbyeeeeeeee….”)
What it will really take is political will. Money. And, I think, wide public engagement of the Apollo-era variety – something which, alas, may not happen again.
What do you think of Tito’s idea? Would you go yourself? What do you think of sending humans into space anyway, when robots can do a cheaper job without risk to life? I’d love to hear from you.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Note: I was going to cover UFO’s this week – but Tito’s announcement is more interesting. ‘Inspirations’ moves to Wednesdays. And coming up, more writing tips, more ‘write it now’, and other fun. Stay tuned.