Missions to Mars
Forty years ago we last stepped foot on the Moon. Currently, with our occupation of the low-Earth orbit international space station, we are space residents. In the visionary Mission to Mars (National Geographic Society, 2013), moon-walker, space advocate, Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, challenges us to take a further step and colonise Mars. Aldrin advocates bypassing the Moon and instead make progressive steps to mars via comets, asteroids and Mar’s moon Phobos. From Phobos astronauts using remote controlled robots will prepare the Mars landing site and habitats. Aldrin states that regular space travel to Mars would be too expensive with Apollo-style modular expendable components, instead favoring a gravity-powered spaceship cycling permanently between the Earth and Mars. Although strongly advocating for a US led enterprise Aldrin, thankfully, sees cooperation, rather than competition with China, Europe, Russia, India and Japan as being the way forward.
Currently we have the Dutch company Mars One are recruiting people to be part of a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2023; the US commercial firm SpaceX have their Red Dragon proposal to put a sample-return mission to Mars by 2018 (seen as a necessary precursor by NASA to a human exploration); the Chinese have a long term plan for non-crewed flights to Mars by 2033 and crewed phase of missions to Mars during 2040-2060. Although the funding mechanisms and motivations are different these plans all make use of one idea or more from book The Case for Mars (Free Press, 1996, 2011). Written by aerospace engineer and founder of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin, it is a meticulous and plausible way to settle Mars. Aldrin’s book is more broad and his ideas fit well with current technologies, US aspirations for asteroid capture and exploitation, and NASA’s focus on the planet Mars.
The veteran Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, is still surprising us with its discoveries, more than nine years after the completion of its 90 day primary mission. While the sprightly youngster Curiosity is regularly rewriting and deepening our understanding of Mars – still only half-way through its three year primary mission.
Appreciating what it takes to get a scientific laboratory wheeling its way across Mars is enticingly portrayed in another new book Red Rover (Basic Books, 2013). This first-hand account is written by Roger Wiens, lead scientist for ChemCam – the laser zapping remote chemical analytical instrument onboard the rover Curiosity. It covers his involvement in robotic space exploration from his initiation in 1990 on the NASA Genesis probe to the joyous moment when Curiosity zapped its first rock in early 2013. If this piques your curiosity then the earlier Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the exploration of the Red planet (Scribe, 2005) is well worth tracking down. A passionate insight into the 2004 twin rover Spirit and Opportunity mission by Steve Squyres, the mission’s scientific principal investigator.
These robotic missions are prudent preparatory steps to Aldrin provides and engaging overview of the technical, economic and political reasons for humanity to journey to Mars. It has been a self-professed vision of his since his return from the Moon. This books, though, represents Aldrin’s first attempt to put the whole of the puzzle, his Unified Space Vision, together in one place. For a more technical read on the settlement and exploration of Mars then Zubrin’s revised and updated The Case for Mars (Free press, 2011) and Marswalk One: first steps on a new planet (Praxis, 2005) by astronautical historian, writer and designers David Shayler, Andrew Salmon and Michael Shayler are also recommended. Mission to Mars though is a clarion call, essential reading for anyone interested in humanity’s next big step.