Published in The Patriot Ledger June 22, 2013:
In 1969, when Neil Armstrong made the “giant leap for mankind” by stepping onto the moon, Vice President Spiro Agnew said that our “next major space goal should be a manned landing on Mars by the end of the century.” That didn’t happen. For over 40 years now, no humans have even ventured beyond low earth orbit, about 200 miles up, where the international space station now flies and the space shuttles formerly flew.
In 2013, President Obama said, “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.” Agnew was too optimistic, but was Obama too pessimistic? At the “Humans to Mars” conference held last month in Washington, many of the participants didn’t want to wait that long to get to Mars. One group plans to send humans to orbit Mars in 2018, and another group plans to start a colony on Mars in 2023.
The most ambitious of the speakers, some say the most unrealistic, was Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur and founder of Mars One, the project that plans to land four humans on Mars in 2023. Because launching a return trip to Earth from Mars is beyond current technology, this will be a one-way trip. Nevertheless, Mars One started to accept volunteers on their website a few weeks ago, and thousands of people have already signed up. If you’re interested, you’d better sign up soon.
Starting in 2016, Mars One plans to send unmanned ships to the red planet to leave materials that the first colonists can use for their habitats after their arrival there in 2023. And every two years thereafter, four more pioneers are planned to arrive. There are substantial technical challenges, including launching a spacecraft with robust life support systems to deliver the humans safely to Mars, landing a vehicle many times heavier than the Curiosity rover that landed there last year, and keeping the colonists alive on the surface of a cold planet that currently has no liquid water or oxygen. There are substantial financial challenges as well, which they hope to meet mostly via the media, showing the entire project to the public in a form of reality TV.
Another visionary among the speakers was Dennis Tito, who in 2001 was the first “space tourist,” spending many millions to spend one week on the space station. His Inspiration Mars project plans to send two people to orbit Mars in 2018. It will be a 501-day trip, so the two people will have to get along really well, and Tito suggests they should be a happily married couple. The Inspiration Mars team is working out the technical details, but they are not accepting volunteers yet. Tito’s funding it himself for now, but hopes to cover the costs with private philanthropy, partly with an on-line Kickstarter program.
The opening speaker at the “Humans to Mars” conference was Charles Bolden, former astronaut and current NASA administrator. Although Bolden claimed delivering humans to Mars was a priority for NASA, they are focusing first on an asteroid retrieval mission that will bag a small asteroid, drag it back near the moon, and send astronauts up to examine it in the 2020s. That will finally get humans once again beyond low earth orbit (as far away from Earth as we were in 1969), but many in the audience didn’t find that as exciting a prospect as a trip to Mars.
Whether humans will reach Mars via NASA and taxpayers’ money or via private money, as planned by Mars One, Inspiration Mars, and other visionaries, remains uncertain, as does what year we will finally arrive there. Of course, when Agnew in 1969 proposed a manned mission to Mars “by the end of the century,” he didn’t say which century.