Marshall Agnew (04/14/04)
Jim Garvin was great to talk to. He put a lot of the most important issues we have been discussing this year in perspective and answer many of the questions that have been bugging me about the mars program. We have been debating the idea of people going to mars quite frequently, but we have not yet had such a professional opinion to consider. Dr. Garvin put the issue in a different light, making a stronger point for human exploration than we have yet heard.
I liked having the future plans for the Mars program explained so clearly. Dr. Garvin's points about the importance of a program and its advantages over single missions were interesting. He pointed out that a program allows us to ultimately be more efficient because we can plan for future missions and carry out experiments designed specifically for the task at hand. Which in this case is exploring mars. An example he used of such future planning is the communication satellite that is being sent to mars. It will be both an experiment in deep space communication on its own and a useful tool for use in future missions. Though the program model seems quite useful to me because it makes us plan many missions in advance, it seems like this could also be a problem if it is not set up to be flexible. If one of the rovers discovered something absolutely crucial to further explore, it would be good to be able to change the plan for the future to further look into it instead of being too stuck in our plans. Dr. Garvin did say that they are avoiding making plans past 2009 in order to see what happens and go with it. This seems like the right way to go to me. It's too bad it takes so long to design and build a mission that we can be sure will work. It means that we are forced to plan very far ahead to a certain degree.
Dr. Garvin made a strong case for sending people to Mars. His main point was that people are much better at adapting to situations that seem strange thinking critically and dynamically than robots can be. People are able to change their behavior and act according to the circumstances of new situations they are put in. This is evidenced by people's ability to carry out science in places like Antarctica and the Vomit Comet. Dr. Garvin thinks that human presence on Mars could be far more productive useful than robots. I agree with him. I think robots are useful scouts, but if they discover something that they are not equipped to deal with, new robots must be designed and sent to deal with it. Then the same problem may arise again. The problem with machines is that they can only be designed to deal with what we expect to find. If the unexpected is found there is nothing we can do. On the other hand, humans can deal with the unexpected and be useful in situations that were not foreseen. I think the fact that humans would be useful on mars is unquestionable, but I am not sure if it is worth the cost or danger.
Many of my questions going into the Talk with Dr. Garvin were about the technology needed to get to Mars. He said that the major obstacles to getting there were payload and safety. In the aftermath of the Columbia accident, NASA is very conscious that it must be careful. Landing sites have to be carefully chosen, mechanical systems have to be flawless, navigation has to be perfect and mistakes like the one that caused the previous Mars rover to crash cant be made. In addition to this, we need to know more about how deep space radiation will affect people and how to protect them from it. Dr. Garvin pointed out that in such a mission the humans themselves would become experiments. We would find out a lot about humans in deep space and that would be a useful experiment by itself.
Payload, the amount everything going to mars will weigh is another major technological problem. We need to find lighter, stronger materials for the mission to work. However, such research would not only benefit the mars mission. This is an example of something that would be spillover technology from the space program that would be useful to society as a whole.
Dr. Garvin also mentioned the fact that nuclear power plants would have to be used to make the mission feasible. It sounded like they will simply try to keep the use of nuclear power under the public view as much as possible and try not to make it an issue.The space program is important to people for a number of reasons that we have discussed in this class. One reason that Dr. Garvin discussed a lot that we have not talked about much in class is the fact that the space program is a great way of producing new technologies. It provides money and incentive for new ideas that might otherwise not be followed though. I think this is reason enough to give strong funding to the mars program.