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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Michael Frederickson (04/21/04)

Monday's conversation with Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott was clearly one of the most anticipated classes of the semester. Personally, I have been excited for quite some time to talk to someone who has actually been in space, especially an astronaut who has spent time on the moon. Clearly there are very few opinions or perspectives more related to the questions we are trying to answer in class.

I think coming into this class, I was less interested in the answers to the usual questions we ask about funding and human versus robotic exploration and a lot more excited to hear Dave's perspectives on his trip to the moon. I was primarily excited to hear anecdotes, and as such really enjoyed Dave's description of the Gemini 8 thruster difficulties and how hard it was to walk on the sloped surfaces of the moon. For one reason or another, I've always been interested in the small details of the engineering that goes into space travel, and so I liked hearing Dave talk about how NASA changed the thrusters to open when the wires carried a charge rather than when they were grounded after Gemini 8. This was also interesting because it illustrates the way NASA learns from their mistakes and improves future missions. I suppose this is the reason why so many test missions will be necessary before we send humans to Mars. In terms of other anecdotes Dave spoke of, I loved hearing how beautiful he thought the moon was, and am always fascinated to hear about “earthrise.” This many years after Apollo 11, it's still simply amazing that man has traveled into space to watch his own planet rise.

Partly because of the dream I recently had about being on an ill-fated space flight and partly because of some odd phobia I've had about dying in space ever since I saw “Apollo 13,” (something like not wanting to swim in the ocean after a screening of “Jaws”), I was very interested to hear how Dave would answer my question about how astronauts cope with the possibility of not making it back from a mission. I assumed that Dave would try to play down the fear, and say that it was only a minor consideration. I was surprised to hear him claim it was not a factor at all, and that astronauts have complete confidence in the systems they have been trained in. Although this sounds fine in theory, I somehow doubt that astronauts never fear disaster in the cosmos. At least to me, the idea of being outside of earth's atmosphere and basically outside the realm of our total control, you must feel somewhat vulnerable and at the mercy of your surroundings and the technology.

Dave's descriptions of how we could justify further human exploration were also of particular interest to me. Though he began by explaining that exploration could be carried out for political power, a spiritual satisfaction, or scientific benefit, I found the conclusion to his presentation to offer the most compelling reason for exploration. Dave quoted Wilfred Noyce and claimed “we go out because it is our nature to go out,” asserting that this tendency is what makes us truly human. I think I've found it difficult to justify why I innately feel like human exploration of Mars is necessary. Though I see so many scientific benefits, I think personally I just have a desire to see the human race cross one more boundary in exploration. Despite some of the amazing justifications we have come up with, to me one of the strongest is simply seeing that picture of an astronaut on Mars. It's undeniable that this image would fulfill a desire we all have to not only “see over the next hill,” but to travel over it.

The reaction Dave had about Bush's space initiative did not completely shock me the way some classmates were explaining in our discussion on Lincoln Field. Though Dave did claim that he found the initiative to be “ill-advised,” I think his descriptions of the future of space exploration certainly do not exclude humans on Mars. We were saying that we thought an astronaut would most certainly support the initiative, though I don't believe Dave was completely claiming we shouldn't send humans to Mars, only that the political nature, financial concerns, and time frame of the President's initiative were unfeasible.

Overall I was just very pleased to be able to speak with someone who has seen the moon firsthand. The opportunity to ask someone who has had such a unique experience about their thoughts on leaving our planet and hearing him reply “one thing you do know is that you're a long way from home” is one I won't soon forget.

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