Geo016 - Exploration of Mars

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Geo016 / Exploration of Mars / (M) 3:00-5:20 / Lincoln Field 105 / Prof. James Head

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Jonathan Russ (04/28/04)

This week, the class had the distinct opportunity to speak via teleconference with astronaut John Young, who flew on Gemini, two Apollo missions and the first Space Shuttle. With his thick southern accent and simple, yet indirect style of speech, Young was nothing like anybody else with whom we had spoken.

Most striking about Young were his reasons for supporting manned space travel. He claimed that “single-planet species cannot survive” and cited the chances of either a large asteroid hitting the earth or a supervolcano exploding within the next 100 years as 1/455. According to Young, we need to begin the process of moving humans around the solar system so that when the end does come for life on Earth, the human race will still survive.

Such talk makes all of the philosophical, social, and economic issues we have been discussing in class seem extremely trivial. If it is true that humanity may be extinguished soon, then we as a species need to begin immediately developing the processes that can save us. However, it must be remembered that if Young's math is correct, the chances that humanity will not be destroyed in 100 years are 454/455. These fractions work out to a .2198% chance of catastrophe and a 99.7802% chance of survival. Framed this way, our situation does not seem so grim.

Many times throughout the conversation, Young mentioned “Franklin Chang's engine.” I further researched this topic and found that Franklin Chang-Diaz is in fact an astronaut who has flown on seven Space Shuttle missions and has been on the International Space Station. From the Johnson Space Center's website:

In 1979, [Chang-Diaz] developed a novel concept to guide and target fuel pellets in an inertial fusion reactor chamber. More recently he has been engaged in the design of a new concept in rocket propulsion based on magnetically confined high temperature plasmas. As a visiting scientist with the M.I.T. Plasma Fusion Center from October 1983 to December 1993, he led the plasma propulsion program there to develop this technology for future human missions to Mars. In December 1993, Dr. Chang-Dìaz was appointed Director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center where he continues his research on plasma rockets. []

Young believes that Chang-Diaz's engine is necessary to reach Mars; it would give a manned mission the flexibility to turn around in case of an unrecoverable emergency. Chang-Diaz is also in favor of nuclear powered rockets:

Q. Should nuclear fuel development be allowed for future spaceflights?

A. My belief is it's an indispensable element. Without it we might as well just quit. It's just as simple as that. I'm not saying nuclear power needs to be used in orbit around Earth or keeping the space station going; I'm talking about going far away from the Earth. [, ]

Perhaps a combination of both plasma and nuclear power would give a rocket the power necessary to reach and return from Mars. However, either one would be dangerous to carry aboard a manned mission; carrying both could be very risky. A failure of either could result in the destruction of the ship, whether by the escape of such high-energy matter as plasma or by nuclear radiation harming the crew and the equipment itself. These new technologies must be tested extensively, both on the ground and in space, before they can be sent to Mars.


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