When will humans explore Mars? This question and others were discussed at a November 13 public forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Space Society. Before an audience of industry experts, lobbyists and congressional representatives in the House Science Committee Hearing Room, 13 independent experts offered their views on humans to Mars and the likelihood that such a mission would take place in our lifetimes.
Transcripts of the event are being prepared now by NSS volunteers and will be available on the Society's web site by late December. For now, NSS offers a synopsis of main ideas from each presentation.
The Main Ideas
Scott Pace, chair of NSS's Policy Committee, chaired the forum, which was organized into four sections. The first section included presentations on robotic missions to Mars and planned strategies to search for life. The remaining day-long discussion focused on how, why, and when humans should venture to the Red Planet. Participants offered statements, then answered questions from the audience and engaged in round-table discussions.
Dr. Roger Bourke -- Dr. Bourke, Mars Exploration Directorate at JPL, provided an overview of missions bound for Mars this year. The Mars Global Surveyor, launched in early November, is now on its way to the planet. The 1,500 pound orbiter will make a detailed map of the Martian surface, including its topography and surface minerals. It will collect data on the atmosphere to learn about the planet's global climate and measure the water content in the soil. The Pathfinder mission, slated for liftoff in December, is designed to validate advanced technology and new landing methods to reduce the cost of future missions to the planet. Pathfinder will transport a robotic rover, called Sojourner, to explore the alien terrain. Russia's spacecraft, dubbed Mars `96, was to have been an ambitious and complex mission that included an orbiter, two landers, and two penetrators. The spacecraft contained some three dozen instruments and involved the participation of scientists from around the world. Immediately following the forum, the craft suffered a failure during launch on November 16 and fell back to Earth. The loss is a major blow to Russia's struggling space program.
Dr. Gerald Soffen -- Dr. Soffen, Director of the Office of University Programs at Goddard Space Center, discussed strategies to search for life on Mars. No organic material was detected in the 1976 Viking mission experiments. Still, life could exist below the surface, where it would be protected from deadly solar rays. If life once existed -- or continues to exist -- it is not ubiquitous as it is on Earth, Soffen said. The Red Planet could harbor tiny microfossils or "nannobacteria." There also could be preorganic material that never evolved into life and does not reproduce. The best place to search for signs of life, according to Soffen, are areas where there might be liquid water and porous rocks. He said future spacecraft may transport lightweight microscopes to examine samples for evidence of life, before transporting them back to Earth.
Dr. Geoffrey Briggs -- Dr. Briggs, Scientific Director of the Center for Mars Exploration at NASA Ames, said robotic spacecraft are insufficient to explore Mars. The vehicles are technically limited and the long period of time required to send round-trip communications -- as long as 45 minutes -- restricts their effectiveness.
John Pike -- Mr. Pike, Director of Space Policy at the Federation of American Scientists, offered a personal view of space exploration. He said he is disappointed at progress to date and believes the space community must do a better job of explaining why it is imperative to go to Mars. For Pike, exploring the space frontier is a "revealed truth." Still, he lamented that many people do not share this yearning. Pike blamed NASA for failing to adequately communicate to the public a vision of the future. He urged the agency to "fix" NASA Select, a television broadcasting system that often shows the agency's logo, or `meatball' as it's fondly called, rather than programs about space.
Dr. Lowell Wood -- Dr. Wood, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, echoed many of Pike's views. He presented a critique of NASA's 1989 Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) in which a lunar base and series of missions to Mars were proposed at a cost of nearly a half-trillion dollars. Since then, mission planners have examined methods to reduce costs.
Wood said using current technology, instead of developing all-new systems, dramatically lowers the price tag for a human mission to the Red Planet. With this approach, to go to Mars would be "no more expensive than development of the International Space Station." The mission would use: 1) the habitat, laboratory technology, and modules already developed for the station; 2) current space propulsion technology instead of new high-energy technology, and; 3) launchers purchased from commercial sources instead of developing a new heavy-lift launch vehicle. Wood concluded that no Apollo-esque spending level would be required to launch a Mars mission and that policy, not technology, is the crucial consideration in Mars exploration.
Former senator Harrison "Jack" Schmitt -- Mr. Schmitt, NSS Board of Governors member, geologist and member of the Apollo 17 crew, the last mission to the Moon, emphasized the opportunities for business enterprises to help fund space exploration. As an example, Schmitt proposed mining helium-3 on the Moon to fuel fusion reactors on Earth. The commercial development of space, according to Schmitt, is a viable alternative to public funding. Schmitt proposed that major new deep space enterprises, if they occur at all, will require a business rationale funded largely if not entirely by the private financial community. Commercial enterprises related to resources from space would make possible the rational consideration of enterprises that provide for long-term environmental protection of the Earth and self-sufficient human settlement of the Moon and Mars.
Dr. Roald Sagdeev -- Dr. Sagdeev, Center for East/West Space Science at the University of Maryland, reminisced about Soviet efforts in the late 1980s to undertake a joint mission with the United States to explore Mars. With the end of the Cold War, much of Russia's space infrastructure has eroded. For today's Russian engineers and scientists, a Mars mission now is a faraway dream. Instead of searching for life on Mars, Sagdeev joked that Russian scientists are hoping to find life in its space program.
Dr. Robert Zubrin -- Dr. Zubrin, NSS Executive Committee Chair, provided a detailed plan to launching humans to Mars that reduces costs by exploiting the planet's indigenous resources. Fuel for a return flight to Earth would be produced from methane in the Martian atmosphere. Zubrin emphasized that only humans can adequately explore Mars, working for extended periods of time on the surface, using subtle forms of intuition, perception and intelligence. Zubrin offered a four-phase strategy to get to Mars, beginning with a detailed plan which would be completed over the next four years. In 2001, with the engineering designs completed, Congress and the Administration would be in a position to authorize the program and initiate construction of hardware. Launch of the first spacecraft to Mars would take place in 2007, with subsequent flights at 26-month intervals thereafter. During each mission, an area the size of Texas would be explored by humans, eventually leading to a series of Martian stations and the ability over time to develop other indigenous resources so humans could remain permanently on the planet.
Gordon Woodcock -- Mr. Woodcock, formerly an executive at the Boeing Company and currently an NSS Board Director, discussed the need for heavy-lift vehicles to explore Mars and provide low-cost access to space. Woodcock stated that, by using what the nation has instead of developing all-new systems, humans to Mars may be no more expensive than development of the International Space Station. A human to Mars program would use the services of low-cost access to space technologies, thereby the two programs greatly benefiting each other.
Dr. John Logsdon -- Dr. Logsdon, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, compared a Mars mission to the Apollo program. Logsdon said there must be a political imperative to go to Mars. Otherwise, sufficient support -- and funding -- cannot be realized. The space community will have to wait patiently until some future, dramatic "occasion for decision" event occurs, at which time elected officials will respond to public concerns and support a Martian mission. Logsdon said a human mission to Mars likely would involve other countries and be modeled on international participation in the space station.
Dr. Michael Griffin -- Dr. Griffin, Executive Vice President of Space Systems at Orbital Sciences Corporation, formally headed the SEI program at NASA. He was not optimistic about a Mars mission in the near future. He argued America has the resources to afford such a mission, but not the will. He said a decision to explore Mars by humans must necessarily be motivated by either fear or greed. Griffin said getting to Mars does not pose major risks to human health, and to be intellectually honest, further research is not necessary on the space station.
Dr. S. Pete Worden -- Dr. Worden, former Director of Advanced Concepts, Science and Technology at the National Space Council, participated in the decision by President Bush in 1989 to re-energize the space program by sending humans back to the Moon then go on to Mars. Worden discussed the flaws in the 1989 decision as critical issues to avoid when deciding to send humans to Mars in a future mission. His hopes are the future Mars science missions be consistent with commercial usage of Mars; make sure that at least some of the missions are funded through "commercial-like" stratagems such as prizes or purely commercial solicitation; and move to allow private/national ownership of Mars.
Karen Rugg is the Communications Director at National Space Society headquarters in Washington.