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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Lillian Ostrach (03/03/04)

Having Drs. Khrushchev and Basilevsky speak during seminar completely blew me away. Since both my father and grandfather work for NASA, I have met and spoke with many astronauts, researchers, and other personnel who have experienced discoveries and space exploration first-hand, however, I am always awed by such accounts. The passion with which the men spoke of their experiences showed how much they truly love what they have done and are presently doing in regard to research and space exploration. I remember what it was like to experience the Columbia Explosion as well as 9/11, and although these events were comparatively different than the launch of Sputnik and the Space Race between the Soviets and Americans, the history is just the same. We are living, as they lived, in a world that is constantly teeming with new discoveries and technology, on the verge of breaking through the present limits on space exploration. Even though we have escaped Earth's gravitational field, the advances of today's space exploration is the same as it was 50 years ago. Comparatively, without the success of the generation of researchers and designers such as Drs. Khrushchev and Basilevsky, we would not be where we are today, crossing the line between automated exploration and human exploration of the outer planets. I can imagine that, in 30 years or so, we will be asked what it was like to be receiving some of the first detailed pictures of Mars, how so much of the political focus was on finding water and, subsequently, life. I think that our circumstances today are very similar to those that Drs. Khrushchev and Basilevsky described. While they described the true beginnings of space exploration, we will describe the first major advances, automated and hopefully, at some point, human, into the outer planets of the solar system.

While reading the articles assigned for Monday's seminar, I came up with some questions that I hoped would either be answered in the discussion or that I would be able to ask of either of the Drs. The majority of these questions were answered during the seminar (such as what were the effects of the Soviet failures and why so many of the missions failed). I was extremely surprised to hear that so much of the Soviet technological advancement during this time was due to the priority of staying ahead of the Americans. I know from previous history classes and my father that the Space Race was just a part of the Cold War, and that the drive to remain one step ahead of America was very intense and that much of this rivalry was founded upon personal pride in the Soviet Union. What I did not know was how competitive the designers were within the Soviet Space Program. I find it interesting that there was no central space program and that designers and technicians worked for separate companies, so to speak, and that this competition as well as the grapple for power between political powers was so influential. On one hand, the only barrier—money—upon the space program could have provided the means for the Soviets to ultimately succeed where they failed. Furthermore, at other times in history, when separate companies competed for acclaim in a certain fields (take, for instance, the separate companies attempting to build muskets and cannons during the Civil War), generally success was achieved because the competition provided a means for further enlightenment. This did not seem to be the case with the Soviet Space Program, and although I find this strange, I think that the Soviets failed where the Americans succeeded because there was no government regulation or strategy, which could provide a stable means of competition as opposed to a free-for-all.

Yesterday's discussion was, I feel, one of the best we've had. Although there was not much time to discuss between students, I feel that the questions asked of the Drs. were very inquisitive and helped draw out information that was not addressed during the seminar or not clear. I was very interested in discussing the justifications for manned space travel and whether these reasons have changed at all during the interval years between landing on the Moon and now landing on Mars, however, I did not feel we fully explored this topic. It is has been a rule to begin exploration with automation (i.e. robots), however, at what point is manned exploration necessary? Machines can only do so much, and although software has advanced much more quickly than hardware, allowing us to explore in ways we have not been able to, there is still so much of the unknown that we cannot know without manned space exploration. Does this mean that we should send astronauts on a potentially dangerous journey to Mars. It is undeniable that there will be risks, however, what is the threshold and definitions of acceptable danger? We can look at the Apollo missions for guidance, however, the accident with Apollo 13 was barely corrected. The difference in distances and time lags between Mars and Moon and the Earth are significant, which makes m interested in a discussion regarding at what point we decide that human exploration of Mars is safe and limit the risks associated with this new space travel.

This topic is closely linked with the President's decision to increase interplanetary travel and the budget allocated to NASA. Regarding this human exploration question, I would also be very interested to discuss the important goals and ideals to keep in mind regarding Bush's initiative and focus for the future since the allocation of the National Budget is directly linked with the amount of progress NASA makes with respect to innovations and safer space exploration equipment. Furthermore, I think it would be wise to compare Bush's initiative with respect to the Soviet experience (I know that the initiative will be discussed at a later date) because “history often repeats itself,” and I think that if we explore and learn from past experiences and so-called “mistakes” (failures of previous missions, good ideas/bad ideas, etc) of the past Soviet agenda we could learn and improve upon our present technology and skills.




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