An open letter to Dennis Tito…
After a delay, I finally watched your plea that you made to the US House of Representatives Sub Committee on Science, Space and Technology to fully fund your Inspiration Mars Foundation’s 501 day flight for two people, male and female, to circumnavigate the planet Mars and return to Earth in the 2017-2018 time frame.
As I watched your testimony, the sage words of the Chinese Military philosopher Sun Tzu came to mind: “ He will prevail when he knows when to fight and when not to fight.”
Mr. Tito, this is hardly the time to fight.
I do agree with your thought that Mars is indeed the next logical step for exploration, so does NASA. The fact that Mars is the target of most of the current and planned robotic planetary exploration missions in the United States attests to that. There are however physiological and psychological variables we must first understand about we humans and compensate for them before we set out for Mars.
The most formidable of these hurdles is radiation exposure. As the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity discovered on its journey to Mars, the amount of radiation a human astronaut would receive on a flight to Mars would accede his or her career limits and increases cancer risk. The Inspiration Mars crew would indeed be making history, but using the current radiation shielding known, upon return, may find their lives short lived. I ask you, is this even ethical to subject people to this unknown? This a problem that is not insurmountable but we need to understand it better and work out a proper solution.
There are other human factors, such as exercise, nutrition, medicine, and mentally dealing with the extraordinary conditions of being in an enclosed space for a little over a year. NASA is addressing these questions about the human creature today using the International Space Station as its test bed..
There are also numerous engineering and propulsion challenges to examine and overcome that, if we are successful, can curtail the transit time out to Mars. NASA too is working towards solving this puzzle, provided the US Congress and the White House see this as a worthy effort for the nation to do.
In the final analysis, NASA is working toward a human expedition on Mars in the early 2030’s but they are doing so in a methodical and logical manner. NASA is attempting to mitigate known risks the best it can, and give a human expedition to Mars a reasonable chance at success.
The impassioned plea that if the United States does not take this step in the 2017-2018 time frame, rival nations will so so and surpass the US in space leadership seems also to ring hollow right now. The fact is no single nation has answered all of the questions that Mars presents to we humans to allow us to touch her surface ourselves. Despite the calls for bold and brave missions, mounting a piloted mission to Mars under the current conditions is a fool’s errand.
A line from the 1986 science fiction film 2010 comes to mind . The leader of the fictional Russian mission to Jupiter asks the equally fictional American Scientist Dr. Heywood Floyd “Tell me what has happened to American bravery?” Dr. Floyd responds by saying “Its alive and well thank you very much. What has happened to good old fashioned common sense?” I think those words apply to this situation, too.
However, all is not lost. Just like the mythical Phoenix, a new dream can come from the ashes of this folly. If the true purpose of the flight is to inspire the next generation, that can still be achieved while also helping humanity unlock secrets and questions that Mars presents.
Instead of proposing a piloted mission that we are simply not technologically ready for in the 2017-2018 timeframe, there may be still time to launch a privately funded robotic orbiter to Mars. Its purpose would be two fold. The first would be to foster more public awareness and participation in planetary science and second to serve as a communications relay for NASA and ESA assets engaged in operations around Mars, now or in the future .
The spacecraft could be launched during the same 2017-2018 time window and be outfitted with the latest optical technology and sensors. Schools from the elementary to college level could devise observational programs for the on-board cameras and instruments. An organization like Slooh could also get involved, allowing its membership to submit an observation itinerary to buy time with the orbiter’s on board cameras, so could amateur astronomy clubs worldwide. An Inspiration One Scientific Review Board could be established to review and approve or deny applications for use based on scientific merit.
The second part of the Inspiration One Mars probe mission would be to act as a communications relay for robotic assets on-orbit or on the ground on Mars. Current communications assets are, as one NASA official observed, “getting long in the tooth”. So perhaps in turn for the Inspiration One mission making use of NASA’s Deep Space Tracking Network, the probe could serve as a communications link on occasion for assets like the Opportunity ,Curiosity and soon Mars 2020 rovers and may also support ESA’s ExoMars rover mission.
To fund the flight, the same foundation model could be leveraged. Perhaps for a certain investment level, one’s name or the name of a loved one could be placed on a DVD or microdot to be placed on board the spacecraft. This is the same method is being leveraged with some success by the B612 Foundation’s Sentinel Mission, a privately funded effort to track down Near Earth Asteroids. Sentinel currently has a launch date scheduled for 2018.
The Inspiration One Mars Probe would foster interest in STEM sciences and be an active partner in helping to unlocking the secrets of Mars. It would become a valuable asset in finding the answers currently eluding us about the Martian environment and encourage public involvement in planetary science. Above all, the mission could be realistically accomplished in the 2017-2018 timeframe.
So, Mr. Tito, I put this new challenge to you to be an active part of the solution to study Mars and to solve the riddles about this world so that one day human eyes will unlock the mysteries of Mars and behold its beauty in person and to rally public support in planetary science. The road to the Red Planet will be paved by engineering, science, and hard work through trial and error mitigating as many of the risks as we can along the way. It will not be paved by headlines and grandiose promises that will never be.
Think about it, Mr. Tito and do let us know, but don’t wait too long. 2017 is looming in the headlights.
Gene Mikulka, Talking Space Radio Internet Radio Program
Gene is the founder and lead pundit of the Talking Space Internet Show heard on Astronomy.FM and downloadable on iTunes
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