Among manned space exploration advocates there is much debate over where to go next. For the last few years it was assumed NASA would follow through on President Bush’s vision to return to the Moon. Now maverick scientists are proposing an alternative plan also reported at Spaceflight Now. Their hope is for manned missions to asteroids with the underlying assumption that this will lead to manned flights to Mars quicker than the Moon first approach. Basically it comes down to a battle between the Reds and the Whites, those people who want to go to Mars and those people who want to colonize the Moon. Mars advocates have always believed we have been wasting decades in low Earth orbit. Lunar explorers appear to believe we’re not ready for manned missions to Mars.
For most of my life I’ve been waiting for manned missions to Mars. Growing up in the 1960s all the books about space exploration assumed Mars was the ultimate goal. The pioneers of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions assumed at that time that Americans would be on Mars by the 1980s because of the momentum of the space race. It was hard to imagine at the time that the public would give up so quickly on the final frontier. After 1972 instead of moving outward the space programs of the U.S. and Russia moved to LEO and parked for decades.
I still think the ultimate goal is Mars, but I’m no longer a supporter of plans like Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct. If manned missions to Mars end up like the Apollo missions to the Moon, just a dash over and grab some rocks, I think it will be counter-productive for long term manned space exploration. We know the public doesn’t want to fund expensive missions, and long term missions are always vulnerable to budget cuts and political change. I think the goal needs to be changed. Instead of arguing over where to go next and ending up dividing our forces, we should unify under the goal of colonizing the Moon, with the focus on living off the land colonization. If we can achieve that on the Moon, Mars and asteroid living will be a logical follow-up.
By colonizing space I mean near self-sufficient living off the land. There are more natural resources on Mars, but its distance make getting started much harder. The Moon is conveniently close and I think the perfect destination for getting started. There’s not much on the Moon, but there might be enough of the essential elements to process what we need. I believe the colonization process is important because anything else will be just visiting, and very expensive vacations at that. Like I mention in “Will Robots Have All the Fun” is the idea of sending robots to prepare the way.
The first thing to do is send robots to explore the Moon and find that theoretical ice. Not only does ice mean water, it means oxygen and hydrogen. Work on the Moon will be hard because of the extreme temperatures and all that pesky dust. The dust is so bad that it could be a show-stopper. Long term stays on the Moon means engineering dust avoidance. Working with ice at hundreds of degrees below zero isn’t like working with cubes out of the freezer. Once ice is located, and pray that it is, robotic miners could be set up to prove that we can extract and store water, hydrogen and oxygen. Even this initial success will be tempered with the fact that we don’t have any storage containers to use. When you have to build everything from scratch things get very complicated.
Another fleet of robots can start work on carving rock. If they can build air-tight rooms and tunnels underground they can mix nitrogen or helium with oxygen to make breathable air and create a storage system that people can also live in. This brings up the need for metal for doors and locks, unless we’re bright enough to create everything out of rocks like the people did on Gilligan’s Island did with coconuts. If we have to ship everything we need from Earth colonizing will fail. That means robotic mining of metals and minerals.
From there we need to find ways to extract carbon and nitrogen. The list goes on and on. Is it even possible to do all of this? That’s still theoretical. I do believe that if all NASA does is collect rocks the public won’t support manned missions. Space exploration needs more purpose and challenge than just going somewhere. It is my belief the public will only spend so much on space exploration. Even if the public got excited about the challenge of designing a self-sustaining system on the Moon, there will still be limits to what we can do. Let’s say Americans do get excited and support one rocket mission a month, a pace never supported by the Shuttle program, how much can be achieved at this pace? How long will the public continue to spend their tax dollars?
If the public is only going to buy ten missions, then all we can do is little more than recreating Apollo 1969-72. What if we got 120 missions – 12 monthly missions times ten years? What if the first 100 missions sent robots that prepared the way for the final twenty that were manned? How much could 100 robots build on the Moon?
Would the infrastructure be built faster with men or machines? If you send humans you have to ship air, water and food, as well as all the machinery they need. The colonizing of space maybe just a fantasy, but to test it will be a great engineering challenge. Developing teleoperated and fully autonomous robots to do this work will be a quantum leap in technology. I think having a bigger challenge, especially one so gadget oriented, might be more inspiring to taxpayers.