Hannah Pepper-Cunningham (04/21/04)
Monday's seminar was, from the insightful and surprising commentary of David R. Scott to the class's culmination on the sun soaked slope of Lincoln Field. David Scott certainly proved to be an invaluable resource; his extensive experience with space exploration allowed him to share some truly insightful commentary on the exploration of Mars, raising issues that I never before would have considered.
My interest was piqued even before he began to describe the actual mission itself. It had never occurred to me to think of a mission as necessitating a clearly defined goal, a clearly defined advantage of human exploration, a discussion of recursor missions, and a design freeze. I guess it is understandable that I would not have considered the last two, given my lack of familiarity with space exploration. However, the fact that I had not even thought that the top two were completely necessary is, I think demonstrative of an attitude of our society, embodied by our president, that accepts plans and national objectives even if such objectives are not clearly defined and explained. Understanding what Scott presented as the need for such a foundation in space exploration certainly made his comment about Bush's initiative being “ill-advised” less surprising. In my knowledge, Bush has not said much about either a clearly defined goal or a clearly defined advantage of human exploration. In the vein of the Bush initiative, Scott also made some interesting points that I have not heard from Bush about cost. He described the difficulties in getting sustained funding throughout different congresses, political climates, economies, and availabilities of resources. It was interesting to hear Professor Head comment that, given the roadblock that long-term funding presents to human exploration of Mars, the People's Republic of China might be more successful in getting funding, as they have a command economy.
Also, in all the time in which we have been discussing human missions to Mars, it never occurred to me how long such missions would be. My jaw dropped when I learned that it would take 7 months to get to Mars, 18 months would be spent on Mars, and it would take 7 months to return, for a total of 33 months!!! First of all, I cannot imagine a 7-month travel time. Second all, a year and a half is a really long time to be away from one's friends and family, one's society, and one's planet . I wonder how many prospective astronauts would actually volunteer for this job given these time commitments. It was interesting the way in which the time frame of the mission affects the selection of astronauts. Not only would astronauts have to be chosen based on how they would fare in long isolation, but I was interested to hear from David Scott that NASA had been toying with the idea of sending couples to space.
One of the most interesting and chilling subtleties of the prospective Mars mission that David Scott was discussing was the fact that the Mission Control Center had been renamed the Mission Advisory Center. I would be interested in knowing more about what the significance of this change is. How will the fact that engineers and navigators on the ground will be too far removed in time to communicate with the astronauts? What amount of navigation do astronauts do now? I would imagine that it could be very difficult for astronauts to navigate for themselves in space given that it is hard to navigate in an area when there are not clear road marks of relative position.Of the countless issues raised by David Scott that I had never thought about before, one of the most interesting was his concern regarding the possibility of contamination of earth from Mars. I would be very interested in learning what specific concerns regarding such contamination scientists, astronomers, and NASA officials have.