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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Paul Berry (04/08/04)

Despite the general cynicism that most people have for planned missions to Mars (which may or may not contain their own personal sentiments against our president, thus influencing their opinions on the matter), I believe that exploration of Mars and beyond is inevitable, and should be considered now. Although we are at the early stages of our Space Age, an endeavor of this magnitude has not been undertaken by any nation or entity ever , and for success to materialize, heavy consideration must be given to the mission now . The beginnings of this are starting to be etched out in various opinion groups, from Congress to the local city governments of the nation, with distinct pro and con arguments, the greatest of which, naturally, is that the mission will be too expensive. For a nation already hanging perilously on the edge of financial catastrophe, I am inclined to agree. Having no formal financial experience, I cannot comment honestly on the status of the country's finances. However, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell that with the national debt at well over three trillion, and an economy that may or may not be on the rebound, a large scale project such as that which the president is proposing is a serious risk. That is not to say that we won't be ready in ten or fifteen years, which is exactly my point. Long term preparation is key to the success of this mission, and the future of our space administration. In spite of the recent successes that NASA has had in the past months, it is undoubtedly becoming an aged entity, whose future depends on the reorganization and reintegration of new leadership and new goals. The fact that 60% of NASA's researchers are above the age of 50 speaks for itself (Science Magazine February '04). New focus and fresh energy in the form of a large scale goal should have the same effect that the race to the moon had in the 1960's, which is why the space administration was created in the first place. Without this great cause, the public will naively continue to see NASA as a giant money pit, which has little to show for the trouble that is made to continue its operations. Little does the public know though, that NASA's research and progress has improved aeronautics and our understanding of subjects from zoology to stellar phenomenon.

The planning will be the greatest obstacle, next to conducting the mission itself. Here, science and engineering will dominate the picture, and a base, literally, must be established in order to progress in a timely manner. In this there are two options, those being the moon and of course, Earth. I am prompted to choose Earth, for a number of reasons. The manpower, materials, and support necessary to manifest successful launches here on Earth are too great to be performed in any other arena. No mission with our current technology would be able to emerge on the moon, at least one intended to make the nearly six month (each way) round-trip to Mars. Regardless of the low gravity environment of the moon, a number of other factors far outweigh the possibility of a launch/permanent base there, such as lack of a truly flat launch area, the unavailability of oxygen, and deficiency of natural resources, not to mention the tremendous costs to move men and materials to construct this proposed base to the moon (as I have been told, it costs close to $10,000 to put something the size and weight of a small commercial water bottle into orbit).

Getting to Mars is also another barrier, one of which that has been particularly tricky in solving. We currently use liquid fuel to propel our (grounded) shuttle fleet, which would be difficult to store (in terms of the volume of space it would consume) on such a long journey. Solar power is an option, but would be impractical and inadequately efficient for a vessel necessary for the mission. The systems onboard would need solar panels the size of a football field to run heating, lights, experimental, landing, propulsion, exercise and recreational, and atmospheric systems. The last option unfortunately is nuclear power. I say unfortunately because, although I think harnessing atomic energy is great for life here on Earth, it would become a colossal risk for disaster, as we have seen in examples like the Chernobyl explosion in the Ukraine. There is enough radiation streaming through the galaxy that eventually ends up in out backyards, and to have more raining down on us very near to our own atmosphere is not only dangerous in the opinion of environmentalists and physicians, but the cost of animosity to the idea of using nuclear power has the potential to spark major discussion over its moral usage as well as the risk to the astronauts/cosmonauts riding on the nuclear reactor for the yearlong journey to the Red Planet.

As for the future of Mars after we do land there, it is difficult to speculate. We did not entirely understand the moon before landing there, only to discover that what we saw through our telescopes was mostly correct: the moon is barren and cold, and the only abundant resource is craters. I believe that Mars will be a different story. Our rovers and the teams commanding them have worked tirelessly to study the soil and geographical features of the planet, but until we actually go there we won't fully understand what it is really like. We may find things that the rovers couldn't, which has a very good chance of happening I think, for although I have great faith in our robotics capabilities, the women and men of the NASA astronaut corps are among the most fit physically, and more importantly, mentally, on Earth.
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