I’m going to have to go see The Martian. Apparently they get up to one of my favourite activities – ‘sciencing the shit’ out of things.
The problems involved in actually getting to Mars are so huge that we’ll have to science the shit out of them, just to reach the place. If we ever try. You see, NASA described its latest manned Mars plan this week as ‘a course toward horizon goals, while delivering near-term benefits, and defining a resilient architecture that can accommodate budgetary changes, political priorities, new scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and evolving partnerships.’
I don’t care how good the plan is. This sort of bureaucrat-speak betrays a culture of insecurity driven by political apathy – and tells me it’ll never happen. Where’s the excitement? The dream? The confidence that says: ‘listen up, pussies! We’re NASA. And this is how we get our asses to Mars! WE’RE GONNA FUCKING LAND ON MARS! OK?’
I miss Mars, you see. The Mars humanity has always dreamed of going to ever since it seized our imaginations and shook us and challenged us – and by that inspiration, made us better people. The Mars that evolves as we learn about it.
I never did get into Burroughs’ John Carter stories. But back when I was a kid, one of my favourite books was James Blish’s Welcome to Mars (1967), a ‘coming of age’ novel where teenage genius Dolph Haertel invents antigravity, builds a spaceship out of a packing case, and flies it to Mars. Where he’s stranded because a thermionic valve fails.
Blish’s Mars was the 1960s Mars, very different from what we know the planet to be like. But closer, nonetheless, to our Mars than to Burroughs’ romantic pseudo-Arabia. It still had thin and unbreathable air and vicious cold. To survive, young Dolph had to ‘science the shit‘ out of what he had. And yes, that included growing crops in sewerage. Blish’s plot envisaged local flora and fauna: back then, even as the first flurry of Mariner probes revealed Mars for what it was, there were still hopes Mars might have obvious life.
The thing about going there, for real, is that we don’t know how – yet. The big issues for any manned mission are life support and cosmic ray radiation during the 256-day (Hohmann) interplanetary legs and on the surface of Mars itself. The round-trip dose is estimated to be between 0.66 and 1 sievert, which has been calculated likely to reduce expected astronaut lifespan by 15-24 years, mostly due to aggressive cancers. Those doses, incidentally, don’t include anything extra delivered by the Sun, should it decide to flare and give everybody outside the Van Allen belts a blue glow.
Life support is another matter. Systems need to be made more reliable by an order of magnitude than they are just now. That’s why I don’t think the Mars One project will amount to anything – I can’t see the FAA or any authority authorising it to fly. And that’s apart from issues on Mars, where local dirt includes perchlorates – rocket fuel. Get some of that on your skin and you’d know about it.
Of course, gloomy transit times assume no new propulsion systems. To me, that’s the real road to Mars. If we develop something with much better specific impulse than current hydrogen-oxygen motors, yet which still has better thrust than the half-hearted sort of sneeze of the NSTAR ion system (yes, that’s still dazzling tech, and yes, Dawn Probe, I’m talking about YOUR motor) we might cut transit times from months to days.
My favourite for ‘wildly out there’ is the nuclear tetrabromide rocket – yup, water laced with uranium salt that goes critical inside your combustion chamber to create a continual kiloton-yield nuclear explosion. You roar off into space on a trail of violently radioactive fire, screaming ‘faaaaaaaark’ like some looney on a fairground ride and hoping your combustion chamber doesn’t melt, while Mission Control apologise for what just happened to Orlando.
That said, if your magic wonder-drive fails after your first acceleration burn, you’ll be in trouble. Big trouble. Thirty days to Mars implies a peak transfer velocity of around 30.5 km/second, but if you add that to the starting velocity (the speed Earth’s already moving around the sun) you end up with a net total spacecraft velocity of around 60 km/sec, which is well over the 42.1 km/sec you need to escape the Sun from Earth’s orbit. ‘Goodbyeeeeeeeee….’
Exotic drives are already on the drawing board. But they are a long, long way from flying. That’s going to rely on funding. And – well, you’ve guessed it – on being able to ‘science the shit‘ out of the engineering problems.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015