Why I think Mars One is a really stupid notion

I posted last week about the silliness of trying to colonise Mars on a one-way basis, unless you’re sending Justin Bieber.

Sure, most colonists here on Earth made the trip one-way. But Earth’s way more hospitable. Even Roanoke. You can breathe the air, for a start.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain. Eventually, Orion may be part of the system that takes us to Mars – and brings us back.

Mars – that’s another planet. It has red skies and blue sunsets, temperatures that make Antarctica look summery, and surface air pressure about 0.6% that of Earth, though that’s academic because it’s mostly carbon dioxide anyway. Mars also has no magnetic field, which means the surface is irradiated from space. Then there’s the dirt, which the Phoenix lander found was saturated with naturally-formed perchlorates. Know what perchlorate is? Rocket fuel. It’s nasty stuff, it’s toxic, and the chances of keeping the habitat clear of it after a few EVA’s seems low.

The biggest problem is that nobody’s been there yet. There’s bound to be a curve ball we don’t know about. It’ll be discovered the hard way.

That was the Apollo experience forty years ago. It turned out lunar dust is abrasive and insidious. As early as Apollo 12, astronauts found dust in the seals when they re-donned their suits for a second EVA – moon-walker Pete Conrad reported that ‘there’s no doubt in my mind that with a couple more EVA’s something could have ground to a halt’. All the later Apollo astronauts hit it; leak rates soared in the suits as dust worked its way into the sealing rings.

I think it’s safe to say something of equal practical difficulty will be discovered about Mars, one way or another. Not good if you’ve just arrived – permanently. Besides, what happens if someone gets needs a hospital now? Or is injured? Well, that’s a no-brainer. You can imagine the colony consisting of a cluster of grounded Dragons with a row of graves next to it.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB ‘wet lab’ configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Mars One plan to send more missions every two years, each with four colonists to join the happy bunch. If they’re alive. My money says they won’t be. This is Scott of the Antarctic territory – high-tech for the day (Scott even had motorised tractors) but still gimcrack.

The main reason we’ve not gone there yet, despite space agencies making serious plans since the 1960s, is cost. Manned interplanetary fly-bys were (just) within reach of the hardware built for the Moon landings – and until the Apollo Applications Programme was slashed to just Skylab, NASA was looking at a manned Venus flyby for 1973-74, using Apollo hardware.

Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they'll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.

Composite panorama of Mars. NASA, public domain.

Unfortunately, stopping at the destination, landing on it, and all the rest was another matter. It was easy to accelerate an Apollo CSM and habitat module into a free-return Venus or Mars trajectory; no further fuel was needed, it’d whip past the target at interplanetary velocities, and the CM could aerobrake to a safe landing on Earth. But stopping at the destination, landing and then returning home? In rocketry – whether chemical or nuclear-thermal (NERVA), the two technologies available until recently, mass-ratios are critical.

Mass ratio is the difference in mass between an empty and fuelled rocket at all times, and fuel takes fuel to accelerate it. It’s a calculation of sharply diminishing returns, and the upshot for NASA and other Mars mission planners in the twentieth century was that a practical manned landing mission was going to (a) require a colossal amount of fuel, and (b) would still transit by low-energy Hohmann orbit requiring a 256 day flight each way, meaning more life support, which meant more fuel (see what I mean?).

Some plans looked to refuel the system from Martian resources, but that had challenges of its own. Either way, the biggest challenge in all Mars mission schemes was the first step, lifting the Mars ship off Earth into a parking orbit. No single rocket could do that in one go, meaning multiple launches and assembly in orbit, raising cost and complexity still further. With figures in tens and hundreds of billions of dollars being bandied about, and no real public enthusiasm for space after Apollo, it’s small wonder governments were daunted.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

Conceptual art of Philip Bono’s colossal ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

My take – which is far from original to me – is don’t try going to Mars now. Focus on building a space-to-space propulsion system that offers better impulse than chemical or nuclear-thermal motors. Do that and the 256-day trans-Mars cruise – which is what drives the scale and risk of the mission, including problems with radiation doses in deep space – goes away. One promising option is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMIR), a high-powered ion drive that might do the trick if it works as envisaged. Another is the FDR (Fusion Driven Rocket). Current projections suggest Earth-Mars transit times as low as 30 days.

Of course, if your drive won’t light when you need it to slow down, you’re on a one-way trip out of the solar system. But hey…

Maybe we should send Justin Bieber on that first VASIMIR mission, just in case…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – jumping back to 1938

There is little in this photo to say it isn’t the 1930s. The car – a Packard Six – dates to 1935. The building behind is an early example of deco-age streamline design from 1932.

Wright_1935Packard I took it during the annual ‘art deco’ weekend in Napier, New Zealand. But it makes me think; it’s too easy to look at old black-and-white photos and forget that, way back when, the world was in colour for those living through it. Henry Ford insisted that customers could have any colour, as long as it was black; but by the 1930s cars were emerging in pastel shades – typified by the cream of this immaculate 1935 Packard Six. That highlights one of the essentials of writing; infusing colour – in all its meanings – into writing. A thought to inspire. Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

What ever became of all the good in the world?

I am always astonished at the limitless capacity humanity has for intellectualising itself away from care and kindness.

Quick - burn the intruding historian! Avenge ourselves!

School. If you’re accused, you’re guilty!

Many years ago, when I was at school, there was a coat cupboard at the back of the classroom. Next to the cupboard was a trestle table on which had been set a class construction project. The bell went. The class joyously leaped from their chairs and surged to the cupboard, shoving and ramming each other as they fought to get their coats and escape.

I’d hung back to wait for the scrum to clear and saw the cupboard door being forced back by the desperate mob, into the trestle table. I rushed to try and rescue it – too late. The whole lot collapsed to the floor as I got there. Needless to say I was blamed. Everybody had seen me standing over the ruin and it (again) proved what a stupid and worthless child I was, and how dare I claim I was trying to save it, I totally deserved what was coming to me.

So much for trying to be a Good Samaritan.

But – but you say – surely I had rights? No. I had absolutely none. Back then, teachers given power by the system used it to smash those the system had defined as powerless, the kids, and so validate their own sense of worth. If I was seen near a broken table and the teacher decided I had done it – well, then obviously I’d done it, and how dare I protest my innocence.

The main ethical problem with this sort of behaviour is that guilt-on-accusation and summary justice stand not just against the principles of our justice system, but also of the values of care on which western society prides itself. But that is how society seems to work, certainly these days. We have trial-and-conviction by media even before someone alleged of a crime has been charged, just as one instance.

All of it is a symptom of one side of human nature. A symptom of the way humans intellectualise themselves into unkindness. It stands against what we SHOULD be doing – stands against the values of care, compassion, kindness and tolerance that, surely, must form a cornerstone any society.

There is only one answer. We have to bring kindness back into the world – together. Who’s with me?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Buy e-book from Amazon

Writing inspirations – a small dose of golden age Hollywood magic

I spent the weekend just gone in Napier, New Zealand – where I went to the annual Art Deco weekend, a light-hearted celebration of Hollywood 1930s fantasy lifestyles. Apt in a city that was rebuilt to those styles during the 1930s.

Wright_Deco Party Central

Every other person is dressed in period costume. The celebration captures not just the way we’d like to imagine the period might have been – but the aspirations of those who lived through it. And I think that’s inspiring on so many levels.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Yes – a Kiwi might go to Mars, but I still wish it was Justin Bieber

A New Zealander’s reached the short-list of 100 possible candidates for the one-way Mars One mission proposed for 2025-26 by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of the project.

Personally I’d have preferred they despatched Justin Bieber and left it at that. But the presence of a Kiwi isn’t bad given that the original long-list ran to 202,586 individuals.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Still, I can’t quite believe the plan. Settlers will be lobbed to Mars in batches of four, inside modified Space-X Dragon capsules. They’ll land, build a habitat based on inflatable modules and several Dragons, and remain there for the rest of their lives. Kind of like Robinson Crusoe, but with all of it beamed back to us for our – well, I hesitate to use the word under these circumstance. Entertainment.

I doubt that the show will run for many seasons. The development timing for the mission seems optimistic – a point I am not alone in observing. There have been a wide range of practical objections raised by engineers at MIT. But apart from that, nobody’s been to Mars before. Sure, we’ve despatched over 50 robots, 7 of which are still operational. But that doesn’t reduce the challenges involved in keeping humans alive in a hostile environment for their natural lives, and I figure from the Apollo experience that there’ll be curve balls along the way.

Those challenges will begin as soon as the colonists are cruising to Mars, a 256 day journey jammed into a 10-cubic metre metal can along – eventually – with 256 days worth of their wastes. Think about it. Popeye lived in a garbage can. The first Mars colonists? Well, they’re going to live in a commode. Hazards (apart from launch-day waste bags bursting on Day 255) include staying fit in micro-gravity and radiation flux. That last is the killer. The trans-Mars radiation environment was measured by the Curiosity rover, en route, and turned out to be – on that trip anyway – 300 millisieverts, the equivalent of 15 years’ worth of the exposure allowed to nuclear power plant workers. A typical airport X-ray scan, for comparison, delivers 0.25 millisieverts.

I suppose the heightened risk of cancer isn’t really an issue, given their life expectancy on Mars (68 days, according to MIT). Though if the sun flares – well, that’ll be too bad. (‘My goodness, what a lovely blue glow. Nice tan.’)

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Unfortunately the radiation problem continues on the surface of Mars. The planet lacks a magnetic field like Earth’s and its atmosphere is thin, meaning radiation is a threat even after you’ve landed. The answer is to bury yourself under Martian dirt, but Space One’s plans don’t seem to include that. There also a possible problem – which we’ll look at next time – with the nature of that dirt.

Whether the intrepid colonists will get away is entirely another matter. Apart from the hilariously optimistic timetable, the project relies on a modified version of Space-X’s Dragon, which has yet to be human-rated. And then there’s funding, which I understand will come from media coverage. But I suspect the likely barrier will be regulatory. These people will be flying inexorably and certainly to their deaths, and odds are on it will be before the natural end of their lives. Will the nation that hosts the launch permit that?

Still, let’s suppose there are no legislative barriers. And let’s say the colonists get to Mars without their hair falling out or the waste bags bursting and filling the cabin with – well, let’s not go there. Let’s say they land safely. Suddenly they’re on Mars. Forever. What now? And what about those curve-balls?

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – they that go down to the sea in ships

There are an awful lot of small boats in New Zealand. I suppose it’s predictable, when you think about the size of the coastline.

Boat harbour, Oriental Bay, Wellington.

Boat harbour, Oriental Bay, Wellington.

I photographed these in the harbour at Oriental Bay, Wellington. And as always there is inspiration there. Who owns these boats? Where have they travelled? What plans, what dreams, do those who sail in them have? Fertile ground for speculation – and for writers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

My flirtation with the ultimate golden age sci-fi gadget

I re-discovered my slide rule a while back, the one I used in school maths lessons, way back when. I didn’t know just how utterly classic such things were, even then.

Aha - now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth's water!

Aha – now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth’s water! Maybe with an app on my Surface Pro 3, but surely via my old slide rule!

These things mostly worked because of a quirk of mathematics – the logarithm, which means you can add logs, as a linear measure, to multiply. And there’s more. In the photo, I’ve set my slip-stick to do the pi times table – and believe me, it’ll calculate that to about two decimal places (which is OK for a quick estimate) faster than you can punch the same thing into a calculator. All you have to do is slide the centre piece to the right point and look along the ruler. Cool.

Time was when no self-respecting space adventurer set off without one of these. They were a staple in Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi, among others. With them you could not only defeat the squidgy aliens who were trying to make off with all Earth’s water – you could go on to conquer the entire universe.

And, just to nail how fast the world changes, NASA actually did conquer the Moon with slide rules. Apollo-era engineers carried them the same way we carry phones.

My slide rule’s linear, but they were also available as circular calculators – disks – often optimised for other functions such as electrical calculation. My father had one.

I have to admit that I’m using computers to do the maths for a hard sci-fi story I’m writing just now for an upcoming anthology. But still, the slide rule’s there as a standby. And the idea of it – well, I find that pretty inspiring. Do you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond