Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Mars is greener than you might think

A while back I was watching some TV show, quite likely a documentary of some sort, that talked about the American effort to land a man on the moon in the 1960s, and more specifically how that goal became a major driver in the American economy during the 1960s.  That concentration of effort is no doubt a huge part of why America was the global leader in technological innovation up to the turn of the century.  The Apollo program wasn't all that expensive.  The government spent, over ten years, between $20 and $25 billion in 1969 dollars (around $150 billion in today's dollars) on the Apollo program, and the government recovered all of that within less than a decade due to increased tax revenues related to the subsequent commercial exploitation of the technologies developed by the space program.

It does rather seem that a major space mission is a good economic driver as well as a very potent way to build national pride in a nondestructive way (we get to win without anyone else really losing).  The problem is that we've already been to the moon; doing it again isn't very interesting unless we establish a permanent base these.  The next obvious targets are Mars and Venus; Venus is closer but the surface is too hot for even a mechanized lander to last long, and a manned mission would have no chance of setting foot on Venusian soil with present materials technologies.  So that leaves Mars as the obvious choice for the next place to send a manned mission, and so when this topic comes up (as it did recently in connection with the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 11) that's what is usually proposed.

There are two main difficulties in a mission to Mars: getting there, and getting back.  And it's not the astrophysics that are difficult: we know how to do that by now.  It's the biosphere management required to keep some number of humans alive (that is provided with air, water, and food) for the entirety of that trip, which will take  months.  The missions to the moon were short, only a couple of days, and it was practical for the astronauts to take their consumable supplies with them and to jettison their waste as they went.  A Mars mission has no such option; if they tried to pack a year's worth of air, food, and water in the ship it would take years just to boost it all into earth orbit for assembly.  To have any hope of being launched in a reasonable time, a Mars mission will have to construct a closed biosphere capable of sustaining the crew, with only sunlight as an external input, for the entirety of its mission; they will have to recycle virtually everything on board and very carefully manage their limited resources. 

Now, doesn't that sound like it should be right up the Green Party's alley?  The need for the technologies required to build a self-sustained closed biosphere capable of supporting a crew of several humans for a year would naturally drive research into all sorts of areas that have immediate and obvious application to waste management and reprocessing, resource recovery, and other aspects of environment management that are just the thing for advancing technologies in ways to pollute our own planet less and place fewer demands on its limited natural resources.  I would think that Greens would be the loudest advocates for a manned mission to Mars because of this, yet the word "Mars" does not even appear in their 2004 platform statement, and in fact the Greens appear to oppose manned exploration of space due to the "high cost and risk for human life".  I suppose they haven't really thought about this that much.

It seems clear to me that a Mars mission could lead to a technological Renaissance in the life sciences the way that the Apollo missions did in the material sciences and in electronics, with huge benefits to all mankind and especially to whatever nation does it first.  But we won't know unless we try.