Opinion: Why a Mars flyby mission?
Lately there have been several proposals to launch manned missions to circle past the planet Mars and return to Earth. Inspiration Mars, is a nonprofit venture that is working to launch a manned Mars flyby in 2018, when Earth and Mars are at opposition. The House Appropriations Committee just authorized NASA to study the feasibility of launching a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2021. Neither of these plans shows much promise or practical value, and there are far better destinations in space in the short term.
There is little doubt that Mars is and always has been one of the primary goals of the U.S. crewed space program. In fact, when the first unmanned Apollo mission was launched, Vice President Spiro Agnew said, “Now we must go to Mars!” More than four decades later and we still have yet to launch a manned mission to the Red Planet
Right now Mars One is trying to mount a one-way Mars colonization mission by 2024. So, with more than forty years since we set foot on the surface of the Moon, perhaps we are starting to realize that there’s a mission that we have forgotten. In terms of destinations Mars is the prime location that crews of astronauts should be sent to.
Of all the planets in the Solar System, it’s the most like Earth. It has water. It is thought to be fairly easy to terraform.
There’s just one problem. We haven’t been to the Moon since 1972. The space shuttle is retired and the United States currently has no manned access to space. From Skylab to the Apollo-Soyuz mission to the space shuttle to the International Space Station, all the space experience during the lifetimes of most of the people alive today has been restricted to low-Earth-orbit at altitudes of less than four hundred miles. All the experts who took us to the Moon in the 1960s and ‘70s have either died or retired. The hardware and the expertise for sending crews beyond the orbit of Earth – has disappeared. We’re starting over from scratch.
However, why Mars and why now? A Mars flyby has been compared to Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the Moon. On the surface, there might be some similarities. Certainly Apollo 8 was an audacious and daring venture. It was the first manned flight of the Saturn V and it was going all the way to the Moon. There was no lunar module, so there was no backup should the command and service module’s main engine fail during the flight. For the first time in history, human beings left Earth orbit and voyaged to another world. The space program was hopelessly primitive back then, yet they went to the Moon anyway; surely we’re as capable today of going to Mars, with our reusable rockets and unwelded spaceship hulls and pocket supercomputers, as those sliderule-users of the 1960s were of going to the Moon.
Not quite. The Moon is only three days away. It’s much easier to send humans in a largely unproven spacecraft on an experimental mission for about a week than it is to send people on a voyage of a year or more far into deep space beyond all hope of rescue, or even of rapid communication. At its closest, Mars is some 55 million miles away from Earth.
A voyage to Mars will offer new challenges, ones which humans have never before faced. It’s easy to say that we have plenty experience with long-term spaceflight thanks to the International Space Station, but a voyage to Mars is very different. For one thing, we have yet to begin year-long tours aboard the ISS (although they are scheduled to begin next year), and though some of the Mir cosmonauts spent a year or more in space, those were one-off missions, so we don’t have the necessary experience of human endurance for the length of time of a Mars mission.
If things go wrong aboard the ISS, communication with Mission Control is instantaneous. Flight surgeons know what’s going on with the guys in orbit. Technical advice is on hand, backed by the best experts in the world. Quite frequently, things have gone wrong aboard the ISS, necessitating lengthy extravehicular activity which has been advised by Mission Control in real-time and can be watched live by anyone on Earth. And even in the face of catastrophe, the ISS astronauts can simply board a Soyuz and come home. Those things will not be possible aboard a spaceship hurtling at twenty thousand miles an hour through the vast void between Earth and Mars.
And as the astronauts battle their way through half a year of unforeseen equipment difficulties, the possibility of solar flares, isolation, boredom, possible micrometeoroids, and whatever other unexpected hazards the universe might throw their way, what’s the payoff—both for them and the eager audiences on Earth? A brief flyby of Mars and then the long trip home. “Inspiration” Mars suddenly doesn’t sound inspiring exactly.
No doubt the view of Mars up close will be thrilling to the astronauts who make the voyage, but equally certain is that they will want to land. So did the astronauts on Apollo 10 who were deliberately given not enough fuel to land on the Moon—but two of those astronauts later had the chance to land. Once again, the Moon is a lot closer and takes a lot less time to get there. If we’re going to go all the way to Mars, why not take that final step and land? The answer, of course, is the inclusion of a lander would add to the cost, the weight, the life support necessities, and the length of the mission. Clearly we’re not ready to land on Mars.
But if we’re not ready to land on Mars, why go there at all? Mars flybys, trips to lasso asteroids, missions to the LaGrange points, all these things are pointless endeavors constructed to justify President Obama’s decision not to return to the Moon, and so we’re floundering to find any destination other than the Moon.
This makes no sense; the Moon is nearby, it provides a handy destination to practice landing and living on an alien world, enabling us to become proficient in deep space navigation, and it has minerals and resources that can not only help us on Earth but would drive research and development of new and revolutionary technologies, and make possible the construction of a lunar base. This base would include a space launch facility and spacecraft, making trips to Mars far easier, more affordable, and inevitable.
A Mars flyby mission is expensive and unnecessary and it would wastefully divert limited resources away from a far more meaningful destination. One which would allow humanity to explore throughout the solar system far more easily. Instead of finding any destination other than the one which would make all others more easy to reach – why not start at the one which actually makes sense?
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.