Humanity won’t ‘science the’ anything out of Mars while NASA’s plans are wrapped in corporate-speak

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.

Real Mars: Bonneville Crater, 2004 view from the Spirit rover. NASA/JPL, public domain.
Real Mars: Bonneville Crater, 2004 view from the Spirit rover. NASA/JPL, public domain.

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.

The real thing: 2007 view from the Spirit rover. NASA/JPL, public domain.
The real thing: 2007 view from the Spirit rover. NASA/JPL, public domain.

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.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.
Before the world lost the space dream. Late-1960s conceptual art of Phil Bono’s gigantic ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit as the Mars Excursion Module backs away for landing. Public domain, NASA.

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

9 thoughts on “Humanity won’t ‘science the’ anything out of Mars while NASA’s plans are wrapped in corporate-speak

  1. OMG, Matthew. I literally laughed out loud — TWICE — while reading your post. But underneath your humorous take on corporatespeak and nuclear tetrabromide rockets, I found a wonderful and important reminder of the power of words. Where IS the excitement these days? Have even NASA lost their sense of wonder? Let’s hope that unfortunate word salad of a plan they released last week was just an intern’s first draft.

    PS: “‘listen up, pussies! We’re NASA. And this is how we get our asses to Mars! WE’RE GONNA FUCKING LAND ON MARS! OK?’”

  2. Dude, you had me laughing with what NASA “should have” said. Damn straight! I’d like to see a “can do” attitude from NASA again. I’d like to see them sound off like they’ve got a pair. That bureaucrat speak I read sounded so mamby-pamby it translated into, “We have no intention of doing anything for fear of failure.” I’d love to see humans land on Mars in my lifetime. Unfortunately, while NASA is still stuck composing mission statements, years are going by. C’mon NASA, I’m getting older here!

  3. I wonder if you aren’t reading too much into the perils of the language of bureaucracy. To quote from the introductory summary of NASA’s Report to the President, of 1962 …

    “Important advances toward development of the system that will place U.S. astronauts on the moon were made, including the decision to send the three-man lunar spacecraft into orbit around the moon and then to send a segment of the craft, manned by two of the astronauts, to the moon’s surface. Due to the magnitude of this effort and its high priority rating, a significant portion of space funds and resources was devoted to the manned lunar-landing project. However, it was clear from the broadly based national program that the lunar effort was but one of a number of space objectives and that space leadership calls for space competences in many areas including exploration beyond the moon with more advanced technology.”

    I have trouble imagining William Shatner proudly reading off those lines as the music swells to an Alexander Courage theme. Actually, I have trouble not taking that paragraph out back and shooting it. And that’s the height of the early Space Race.

    1. True. Bureaucrat- speak hasn’t changed. What has shifted is the political imperative that drove the Moon race. This always was a bad reason to go, but without it humanity has floundered. Suggesting that the ‘spirit of the unknown’ never was a real impetus in the wider social sense. Damn.

  4. Well, The Martian (book) was a good read. Of course, it worked on the premise that how to get there had already been worked out. I do recall some distinctions made between administrators and those who get things done.

      1. I thought it was a really good book, and I’m not even a fan of SF, for the most part. It’s amazing how the main character’s narrative voice makes a lot of scientific info easy to read.

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