IAC 2016, Part 1: The Race to Mars

This year’s International Astronautical Congress is over, and we can now reflect on what it brought forth. It had been especially eventful this time and left hardly anyone cold. Possibly the main theme which resonated throughout the conference had been Mars exploration – talks by SpaceX’s Elon Musk on one hand, Lockheed Martin on the other hand, and numerous people in the technical sessions might have marked the beginning of a true race for Mars. But another pattern also emerged, and that was making space more accessible for everyone. A part of that were talks about affordable internet connection, satellite telecommunication or disaster management in developing countries, but also the Moon Village concept, first presented last spring by ESA’s Director General Jan Woerner. Musk’s grand Mars colonization plans and Woerner’s vision of the Moon Village stand in an interesting contrast next to each other. Now, don’t get me wrong, by no means do they exclude each other. On the contrary, I can imagine both activities going at the same time. But the spirit of those visions is very different; more on that later.

Mars has been the target of our imagination for centuries, if not millennia. We’ve dreamed of its exploration and colonization since the late 19th century. It’s not surprising that these dreams are being given a shape every once in a while. Today may be different, offering a real chance of achieving that dream. But does it really?

The most expected event

Let’s start with Musk’s talk; highly expected long before the congress, and eliciting a long queue almost two hours before the start of the lecture, an undignified run of a part of the audience for the front rows after opening the doors, a sea of raised hands snapping pictures during the event, and many rounds of applause throughout the talk. Quite understandably, people were curious. And Musk delivered. He talked about getting us to Mars for insanely low costs, sending a hundred people per mission, and starting with a human crew already in less than ten years.

Ambitious? Very. Plausible? From the engineering point of view, perhaps. The ITS, as Musk presented it, was very impressive. He’s got the course of the voyage thought through, and if SpaceX can actually built its “BFR”, the transporter and tanker in a few years’ time ad test them, the technical solution seems sound. I’m not an engineer, though. And while the engineering side seemed very well-conceived to me (albeit somewhat fast-track, considering that SpaceX’s earlier heavy lift launcher Falcon Heavy has not even beet test-launched yet, compared to the original estimates of a 2014 launch), I’ve got some questions that haven’t been answered.

Musk talk

More questions than answers

Lots of people talked about money. The costs presented by Musk certainly seem very optimistic. Even if they can manage to stick to them, securing the finance will still be difficult. But he talked about that, and enough money from commercial launches and investors might cover it. Okay, let’s stick with that for now. However, “radiation protection” hasn’t been tackled in the talk at all. Musk later answered a question about it in his Q&A with reporters (sadly, a lot of the audience Q&A I saw had been rubbish; I’d have liked to ask about radiation protection, life support, planetary protection and other issues, but I hadn’t even seen the mike, and people who had wanted to ask about “sandy shitstorms” or trying to get a kiss from Musk unfortunately got to it first, embarrassing the rest of the IAC audience), claiming that the motor section should provide enough protection against solar activity.

But that doesn’t cover cosmic rays. Water, perhaps? Okay; let’s say it gets solved soon. Musk said, after all, that he wants to build the transportation system, and it will spur the needed development in other areas. However, radiation protection is kind of a part of the transportation system that might potentially influence the mission’s course (mainly through mass). Then we have life support (lots learned especially from ISS and Mir, true, but we can’t get cargo to an interplanetary ship or evacuate it easily), provisions for the crew, exercise, maintenance… When asked about who would fly to Mars in the Q&A, Musk replied virtually that it could be anyone who could undergo a few days’ training and afford the “house in the US”-costing ticket.

Ahem… For later colonization missions, I can with some reservations imagine that. For at least the first few, hardly. First, we need a crew well capable of dealing with emergencies, should any arise, fit to do some science on Mars, set up and maintain the infrastructure (the planned power plant and Sabatier-reaction methane generator won’t build and potentially fix themselves, unless we experience a serious jump ahead in robotics in the next few years), physically fit (we’ve got data on year-long stays in microgravity, true, but what about staying much longer in Mars’ gravity, or even living there later…), and also able not to kill each other during the journey. On the ISS, you get a six-members’ crew of thoroughly tested, physically and mentally fit astronauts with experience in science, engineering, piloting an aircraft, trained for their stay in space… Sure, the tests are not perfect, but they’re much better than nothing at all.

If I try to imagine a hundred “normal” people locked together in a fragile metal can hurtling towards Mars, where they’ll also need to efficiently work together for at least some months, I get goosebumps. Not to mention the infectious diseases being brought by a hundred people into an isolated space. However, I’d guess that the real scrutiny would be higher than Musk hinted in the Q&A. Or, if not… A friend has reminded me that people’s motivations for going to Mars can be highly irrational, and health or competence concerns can in that case be viewed only as influencing the number of people willing to go (and maybe die en route or soon after arrival). I don’t quite agree (after all, catastrophic deaths wouldn’t be good for public opinion, unless they could be spun as heroic – which may not be ethical, but let’s be honest, it would occur to someone, even if the approach was discarded then).

Contaminating Mars?

After we manage all that (roughly sticking to the timeline, finding money for the enterprise, getting sufficient radiation protection and other vital components for the crew, selecting a capable crew), there’s still the question of planetary protection. Some Earth microorganisms might theoretically be able to withstand conditions in some areas on Mars, as far as analogue experiments suggest. And though short-term survival and reproduction are vastly different things, it’s not implausible to consider inadvertently colonizing Mars with our microbial communities a threat.

Why should we care, you ask? First, there’s the question of science. If we’re to search for signs of extinct or even extant life on Mars, contaminating it with Earth life might be a problem. Would we ever be sure what we’ve found – is it indigenous, or delivered on our spacecraft? Sure, if you run it through PCR and it comes up very close to what we’ve sequenced here, you can say it’s contamination, and continue searching. If you don’t find a match or are unable to apply our techniques successfully, you may have stumbled upon a Martian (but have you really, can you be sure?). Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that. If we’re searching for organic molecules, or signs of chemical disequilibria, contamination would present a serious problem. Not speaking of the possibility that if there were extant organisms on Mars, Earth microbes could potentially outcompete them and wipe them out.

Is it still relevant, considering that spacecraft that hadn’t been through any serious sterilization procedures had crashed on Mars repeatedly, and considering that sterilization is never perfect? Hard to say. I’m not a huge fan of planetary protection when it on some occasions seems to be taken too far and hindering much needed research. However, I can understand that erring on the safe side is the low-risk strategy potentially saving precious scientific results later. But that is essentially over when humans step on Mars. Musk did not address this issue at all.

But enough of the criticism. What I loved about the talk was that it got us seriously talking about crewed exploration and colonization of space. It showed us that it just might be possible to start very soon. Now we can discuss the hard questions of the “soft” scientific fields, which are in more detail described e.g. in many articles of this storystream, here or here), and hopefully come up with solutions to test.

Hope for Mars

There had been occasions in the past when other rocket scientists tried to get people talking about Mars colonization. Wernher von Braun’s book Das Marsprojekt (1953) or his associate Ernst Stuhlinger’s concepts, as presented in Disney’s educational movie Mars & Beyond (1957), had been such attempts. We now know these missions would not have been plausible; e.g. they did not consider radiation much a problem, relied on technology not yet fully developed, and presumed a much thicker Mars atmosphere for the use of gliders for landing. Unlike von Braun’s or Stuhlinger’s concepts, Musk’s plan stands on engineering solutions that should really work in a journey to Mars, mostly it’s scaling up current tech, even though the ITS has not been built yet; but very much like them, it offers answers to the transportation question only, and that is not enough. I agree that SpaceX itself should be concerned with transportation, just as Musk said, but some hints at collaboration with institutions/firms achieving the rest, getting compatible solutions, would be nice. But maybe that was a goal of the talk: Hey, we can provide robust transportation technology; give us a call if you want to work with us!

Even though I hope I’m wrong and the optimistic, audacious plan works, I don’t think it’s very likely, and that it would be so easy that all necessary questions would be answered merely along building the ITS. I think we need to raise the probability that the crew would survive the journey and stay on Mars first. How did I ever end up on this side of the “exploration argument”? I, who would love to see more missions implemented and argue that we will learn more by going there? I, a science fiction author (among other things) dreaming of living on other planets? But it’s something else to send an early exploration piloted mission, and try to start a colony without pretty much any vitally needed data.

Yet – it got us talking, and that is a very good thing. And even if we don’t find the plan very plausible, we can still root for it with some reservations.

Mars Base Camp

Lockheed Martin representatives presented their own vision of a piloted journey to Mars. “Mars Base Camp” has been around for a couple of months. It builds on the existing technology of the Orion capsule and SLS (to be test-launched soon). I must admit I’m not a big fan of the SLS and perceive it as largely redundant in the coming age of reusable rockets (feel free to convince me I’m wrong about that), but it’s going to get built, and it’s almost done, set for a test launch in 2018. Eric Berger has aptly put it in his Ars Technica article as “learning to live with it”.

The LM talk at the IAC was heavy on PR. Another contrast to Musk’s talk: He doesn’t seem like a very good speaker – whether it’s because he really isn’t, or it’s a part of the image – but it seemed more natural. Not entirely sure about the speech being “naked baring of his soul”, but Musk’s talk certainly resonated with lots of people and seemed to be delivered “from the heart”. The LM talk attempted that, and I’m not sure whether it succeeded with anyone. They had eloquent, strong speakers, but the PR touch was a bit much. I didn’t care about that much, but I liked the information they presented. So what are they planning?

Through uncrewed missions at first, crewed missions in cislunar space in the early 2020s and potentially an asteroid mission (either ARM or a similar scenario), LM would like to send first humans to Mars in 2028. Launching on SLS, the spacecraft itself would be assembled in cislunar space and sent to Mars, using solar electric propulsion; quite a sophisticated solution (although, as one friend pointed out, the area of the solar panels would have to be much higher than in LM’s pictures for solar electric to propel the spacecraft alone). The crew wouldn’t land on the Red Planet. Instead, they would directly explore Phobos and Deimos, and control robotic explorers on the planet’s surface. It elegantly disposes of the problem of landing humans on Mars and lifting off again, while still bringing the “human insight” into getting the science done. We can study some of the effects on human health without endangering the crew further during these critical points. On the other hand, it hinges on everything going according to plan with Orion and SLS, and of course on advancing the solar electric propulsion (find out more e.g. here).

The timeline seems tight to me, but more realistic than Musk’s. Both concepts are bold and optimistic, and what they differ in primarily is the intended scale. While crewed missions to Jupiter’s or Saturn’s moons or beyond, which Musk hinted at by the end of his talk, seem very far-fetched to me (supplies? radiation? being in a can for years? local resources? planetary protection? – basically what concerns me about potential Mars colonization, but scaled sharply up), ITS might revolutionize robotic missions to the outer solar system sooner than expected. (If someone pays for the launch and develops the spacecraft, but still…) More advanced ion engines might be potentially more suitable for that (among other things, carrying an order of magnitude less propellant is always nice), but when would that happen?

Purely storywise, SpaceX’s concept raises more attention. It’s more ambitious and answers directly to the dreams and desires of many people. It’s grand. And SpaceX as well as its leader constitute a thrilling story in themselves. Why care about that? “Story quality” heavily influences media’s response, public engagement and opinions, perhaps can even sway some policy makers. But ultimately, science, engineering and finance will most likely decide the fate of SpaceX Mars colony, Mars Base Camp or other concepts that might emerge or resurface in the following years. I personally hope we get a well-prepared crewed mission soon, be it one by SpaceX, Lockheed Martin or some other player in the field. We live in interesting times, and I must say I love it. See you on Mars.

Coming in Part 2: Robotic missions to Mars, astrobiology, return to the Moon, accessible technology, icy moons exploration.


Guadalajara: shooting for the stars?

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