05 Jun Behind the Scenes: Mission to Mars
Buzz believes America stands at a critical crossroads in its space program. While it may seem like ancient history to some, it was only 44 years ago in 1969 that the Apollo 11 mission to the moon landed the American flag farther from home than ever before. Now, years after the first man set foot on the moon, Buzz boldly advocates for the continuing exploration of our solar system, and for humans on Mars by 2040.
Read an exclusive excerpt from Buzz Aldrin’s book Mission to Mars, from National Geographic Books below.
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The red planet has long drawn our curiosity—and now there’s a rover prowling about Mars named just that. We first made eye contact with the world that holds its secrets tight thanks to Earth-based telescopes.
Mars is an intellectual magnet provoking thought. Consider the view of astronomer Percival Lowell, writing in his 1908 book, Mars as the Abode of Life:
Thus, not only do the observations we have scanned lead us to the conclusion that Mars at this moment is inhabited, but they land us at the further one that these denizens are of an order whose acquaintance was worth the making. Whether we ever shall come to converse with them in any more instant way is a question upon which science at present has no data to decide.
But science about Mars has proceeded ever since, and since 1960, telescopic-driven talk about life on Mars has been augmented by voyages of numbers of automated spacecraft—sent there by multiple nations. Mars has been flown by, orbited, smacked into, radar examined, and rocketed onto, as well as bounced upon, rolled over, shoveled, drilled into, baked, and even laser blasted. Still to come: Mars being stepped on.
Now and in the near future, robotic exploration of Mars is providing a window on a world that can be a true home away from home for future colonists.
The first footfalls on Mars will mark a historic milestone, an enterprise that requires human tenacity matched with technology to anchor ourselves on another world. Exploring Mars is a far different venture from Apollo expeditions to the moon; it necessitates leaving our home planet on lengthy missions with a constrained return capability. Once humans are at distant Mars, there is a very narrow window within which it’s feasible to return to Earth—a fundamental distinction between our reaching Earth’s moon in the 1960s and stretching outward to Mars in the decades to come.
All this is preface to a major judgment—one that I feel NASA planners are dodging. There is no reason to make a humans-to-Mars program look like an Apollo moon project.
We need to start thinking about building permanence on the red planet, and what it takes to do that. I feel very strongly about this. This is an entirely different mission than just putting people on the surface of that planet, claiming success, having them set up some experiments and plant a flag, to be followed by quickly bringing the crew back to Earth, as was done in the Apollo program.
What are you going to do with astronauts who first reach the surface of Mars and then turn around and rocket back homeward? What are they going to do, write their memoirs? Would they go again? Having them repeat the voyage, in my view, is dim-witted. Why don’t they stay there on Mars?
No question, this is a very big, high-level decision that needs to be made. I can guarantee you, if we have anything like the legislative branch of government in the future that we have today, the first tragedy at Mars with a crew would mean cancellation of the program. And that’s all we do about Mars for another century.
I suggest that going to Mars means permanence on the planet—a mission by which we are building up a confidence level to become a two-planet species. At Mars, we’ve been given a wonderful set of moons—two different choices—from which we can pre-position hardware and establish radiation shielding on the Martian surface to begin sustaining increasing numbers of people—not just one select group of individuals. To succeed at Mars, you cannot stop with a one-shot foray to the surface.
It will be a historical moment long remembered when the U.S. President commits the nation to permanent human presence on Mars. Let me hypothesize a political scenario on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon, in 2019. The U.S. President, whoever that may be, takes the opportunity to direct the future of human space exploration, pioneered by Americans, by stating in a speech: “I believe that this nation should commit itself, within two decades, to establish permanence on the planet Mars.”
That statement will live throughout history, committed to memory on Earth and by the first Mars settlers. In response, around 2020, every selected astronaut should consign to living out his or her life on the surface of Mars.
So why send humans to Mars in the first place?
There is common agreement that humans trump machines in many ways. They offer speed and efficiency to perform tasks. On-the-spot astronauts offer nimbleness and dexterity to go places that are challenging for robots to access. Then there are the innate smarts, ingenuity, and adaptability of a human to evaluate in real time a situation, then improvise to prevail over surprises.
Still, there is a softer side of placing humans on Mars. There are behavior, performance, and human factor unknowns. Living far from Earth in a remote and confined environment will surely induce physiological and psychological stresses. One oddity that is sure to haunt the first humans on Mars—loss of privacy.
You already get a sense of that when you tune in to televised linkups with International Space Station crews. Lots of cameras are positioned everywhere. Of course, the communications time lag between Earth and Mars is a factor. There’s a way to start simulating today how best to handle Earth-Mars communications time delays. The International Space Station could simulate and teach people on both ends how to deal with the person-to-person communications delay. What this might boil down to is that every interplanetary traveler has to be a procrastinator!
Other than our limited trips to the moon via Apollo, humans have never embarked upon a mission that’s on a par with marching off to Mars; the best analogs so far are Antarctic, undersea, and International Space Station expeditions, but these are distant cousins to the isolation, remoteness, and challenges that will be faced by courageous men and women stationed on Mars, many millions of miles from Earth.
A NASA Mars reference document emphasizes the need for more study of the composition of a Mars crew, based on personal and interpersonal characteristics “that promote smooth-functioning and productive groups, as well as on the skill mix that is needed to sustain complex operations.”
Establishing a footing on distant Mars is a complex operation. The challenge ahead is monumental and historic. We are on a pathway to homestead the red planet courtesy of robotic explorers that are surveying what now looks like unreal real estate. Nonetheless, there’s familiarity with remote Mars. It did not go unnoticed that the first color images transmitted from the Curiosity rover showed layered buttes and other features reminiscent of the southwestern United States.
There is an evolving comfort level with Mars. It is a perspective that beckons us to push forward.