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Human Mission to Mars Feasible But Elusive - 2003-09-05

The year is 2057. The Earth is overpopulated and over polluted. The first manned mission to Mars is launched to make the red planet more habitable for life and a second home for humanity. As the crew nears Mars' atmosphere, a solar flare suddenly crosses the ship's path and shuts down its main power. The crew is forced to land on Mars, where it faces a hostile environment with a limited oxygen supply.

Val Kilmer is one of the astronauts, only he is an actor from the 2000 film "Red Planet," a Hollywood version of human kind's first arrival on Mars. But real life astronaut Michael Foale would like some day to actually walk on Mars' surface. He says humans should explore the one planet in our solar system most like Earth: “Mars is the paragon of our dreams right now, realistic dreams for the human being to stay in space. We need to go to Mars because it is another place to explore. It's a place where human beings could most realistically live and form a separate outpost from Earth. Should the Earth ever be hit by a giant asteroid, should human life ever be threatened on Earth, human life would continue elsewhere in this universe on Mars. It is another potential cradle of humanity, and one that we must never loss sight of.”

Mr. Foale believes humans have the technology to reach Mars in 15 years. That's what the Mars Society wants to do. Made up of scientists, astronauts and others from the space community, it advocates a "Mars Direct" plan, a long-term project that involves a combination of robotic and human trips to the planet that could culminate in settlement. Mars Society President Robert Zubrin: “We are much better prepared to send people to Mars today than we were to send people to the Moon in 1961, when President Kennedy started the Moon program, and we were there eight years later.”

Mr. Zubrin believes that worldwide focus on Mars combined with a re-evaluation of NASA's mission may spark strong public support for a human mission to the red planet. He explains how humans can get there: “You have two launches. On the first one, you send an earth-return vehicle, which flies out to Mars with no one in it. It lands on Mars, runs a pump, sucks in the Martian air, which is carbon dioxide gas, and by reacting that with hydrogen that you brought from Earth, it turns out a lot of methane-oxygen rocket propellant. Once that is done, next launch you shoot out the crew, and because their return ride is waiting for them, they don't have to ride out to Mars in some sort of gigantic fantastic spacecraft. They can just fly to Mars in a basic habitation module like an eight-meter diameter tuna can with a life support system involved. You land in it, and use that as your house for a year and a half until the planets move around and give you the right launch to go back to earth. You get into the earth return vehicle, and you spend six months to get back. There is nothing in this that we don't know how to do.”

Mr. Zubrin believes people could live on Mars permanently. “Later on, humans on Mars will probably create structures like inflatable domes with diameters of 150 meters within which one will have habitable volume and open air gardens. Ultimately, in the far future, I think humans will alter the environment of Mars itself, because Mars was once a warm and wet planet and it could be made again through human ingenuity. I think that is what our distant descendants will ultimately do. We will make Mars a second home for life.”

Mr. Zubrin says humans can reach Mars at a cost of about 50 billion dollars, three times the size of NASA's current yearly budget and about one ninth of what the United States spends per year on defense.

But critics argue that is a lot of money to spend on out-of-earth endeavors. Some say Mars is too far away to really excite the public. And some cost estimates of a Mars manned mission are closer to 500 billion dollars, 10 times Mr. Zubrin's estimate.

Louis Friedman is Executive Director of the Planetary Society, an advocacy group that promotes exploration of the solar system. He cautions that sending men and women to Mars would be highly risky and would take over two and a half years. First, he says, humans must learn a lot more about the planet through robotic missions: “We have a rich amount of Mars exploration going on. But what has to happen to take the real next step is building up some sort of outpost on Mars. Probably, first, robotically, then secondly, setting in the support necessary for humans to go there. We need to begin to understand lots of different places on Mars, to dig deeper into the surface and extract more from the atmosphere in order to conduct operations there.”

The United States is not the only country thinking about a mission to Mars. In Russia, it enjoys widespread support in recent polls. Yuri Karash, an independent space policy analyst based in Moscow, says “more than 50 percent of those who participated in these polls support the human mission to Mars. Not just support, but they would like to see the beginning of the preparation of this mission to Mars in the current Russian economic conditions, which was actually quite surprising.”

Mr. Karash explains that even though more than 30 percent of Russians live in poverty, they still want to go to Mars. He also says that more than 80 percent of those polled would like to see Russia remain a great space power.

Professor Howard McCurdy, a Space Analyst at American University here in Washington and author of Space and the American Imagination, believes US interest could be ignited but only by special circumstances. “It's going to take some congruence of events that we can hardly imagine right now, something on the order of what happened in 1961 when John F. Kennedy decided it was in our national interest to have a space race as a way to convince other nations that we were going to win the Cold War. I don't see that weight of opinion right now creating that sort of political necessity. It is discouraging because I'd like to see us go to Mars in my lifetime, but I fear that now we are going to have to wait a little longer.”

Professor McCurdy thinks that if it happens at all, humans will reach the surface of Mars around 2050 or 2075. But Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society believes it can and will happen earlier. Only time will show just how soon, if at all, humans step foot on our neighborly red planet.