Mars in Reach

Are we closer to a red-letter day on the red planet?

by Chip Taulbee

THE FOURTH PLANET FROM the sun has been in the news so much lately, you’d think it was running for public office. In late September, Elon Musk offered his company’s most detailed roadmap for colonizing Mars, endeavoring manned flights to the planet as early as the middle of the next decade.

Juxtapose SpaceX’s Olympus Mons-sized ambitions for the near future with the European Space Agency’s recent loss of Schiaparelli, which would have been its first Martian lander. The chasm between man’s dreams for inhabiting the red planet and the harsh realities of achieving them seem astronomical.

SpaceX’s proposed Interplanetary Transport System (Courtesy SpaceX)

A reenergized pop cultural interest in the planet marks a positive step in bridging that 34-million-mile gap and mustering the ingenuity, resources and wherewithal needed to make humans an interplanetary species. (Thank you, Andy Weir and Matt Damon.)

A new National Geographic Channel miniseries, Mars, capitalizes on this interest and, its producers hope, engenders even more enthusiasm for one day occupying the planet. The six-episode program, which premieres Nov. 14 at 9/8c, follows the fictional path of six astronauts traveling to and attempting to survive on a Martian colony while mixing in, documentary-style, today’s ongoing progress toward making such a mission possible.

MARS | Exclusive Sneak Peek (National Geographic)

Stephen Petranek, whose book How We’ll Live on Mars inspired the Nat Geo series, believes humans will walk on Mars by 2027 and that we’re within a generation of large numbers of people living there. He detailed for the Bulletin his reasons for optimism.

Chip Taulbee, Mensa Bulletin editor: Who’s landing people on Mars first?

Stephen Petranek: I don’t think that there’s any question that it’ll be SpaceX. That company was built and designed with one single mission to fulfill, which is to create a sustainable colony of people on Mars — and to make humans a two-planet species. They have developed rocketry faster than any organization ever has. When you look at the rapid technology effort that went into the Apollo missions to go to the moon, they pale by comparison in many ways to what SpaceX has been able to achieve in only a few years.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Originas have been pioneers in reusable rocket technology (Courtesy SpaceX)

CT: What are NASA’s plans for sending people to Mars?

SP: I had a long interview with [NASA Administrator] Charlie Bolden a couple months ago, and NASA is now finally publically saying that they are going to Mars. When I was writing my book and I interviewed a bunch of people from NASA, they kept pointing out there are a number of NASA websites that say NASA has no plans for a manned mission to MARS. And then my book came out about a year ago. And then The Martian came out last fall, and, lo and behold, toward the end of last year, NASA suddenly appoints a director of a manned mission to Mars and completely rejiggers its [Space Launch System] and the new kind of capsule — it’s Apollo on steroids that they’re putting on top of it.

I think there was an awareness created that actually going to Mars was probably a pretty good idea for the long-term survival of humans.

CT: What spacefaring capabilities does NASA have that SpaceX does not?

SP: SpaceX is far better equipped to get us to Mars; NASA is far better equipped to keep us alive once we get there. NASA has a long and deep history of being able to keep people alive in the incredibly hostile environment that is space, and they’re really good at it.

They have invented machines, like a device called MOXIE [Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resources Utilization Experiment] that will be on the [Mars 2020] rover. And that machine sucks in the Martian atmosphere — 96 percent CO2 — and splits off the oxygen from that CO2 molecule, which is poison to us, and [converts it to] 78 percent oxygen. That machine, which will be launched as an experimental device, will make enough oxygen to keep one person alive indefinitely.

Mars 2020 rover’s oxygen-making MOXIE (Courtesy NASA)

That machine was designed to be scaled up by a factor of 100, to be sent to Mars in advance of a human mission and sit on the surface and make a lot of oxygen for two years. NASA is really good at that stuff. They’re really good at habitats. SpaceX’s expertise is in rocketry. So I think eventually there’s going to come a moment in the relatively near future when NASA and SpaceX start working in an extremely cooperative way to not only get people to Mars but to keep them alive there.

CT: Are public-private partnerships the future of space exploration, or will there be a full-fledged commercialization where governments are squeezed out of space travel?

SP: I think governments have lost control of going into space and don’t have the heart for it, don’t have the funding for it and don’t have the vision for it. And the private industry is leaping into space. This whole concept that a Russian space agency or NASA or the European Space agency is what you need to get into space, it’s just going to disappear. I think governments are going to get entirely out of that business. It’s going to go totally commercial.

In only 14 years, SpaceX has achieved several firsts for a spaceflight company or agency, including most recently returning a rocket from space and landing it on a platform at sea. (Courtesy NASA)

CT: Why are these private organizations finding success without the resources of a large space agency?

SP: NASA for a long time was an energetic, visionary group of people. For a long time they basically developed ballistic missiles. Very early on in its history, President Kennedy gave them a challenge and said, “Put a human being on the moon.” And that created an enthusiasm, a spirit and a passion that was pervasive. NASA was an extraordinary place in the 1960s. And then as the Apollo missions came to an end, there was this big question. And then as the Apollo missions came to an end, there was this big, elephant-in-the-room question: What’s NASA for?

NASA does extraordinary research in so many fields, and space is actually just a part of it. But it doesn’t get thought of for that [research], it gets thought of as a space agency. It’s thought of as the people who took us to the moon. In the early ’70s, as the Apollo missions were winding down and the big question was “What’s next?” Wernher von Braun went to Nixon and to Congress to try to convince them that we should go to Mars and that we could land people on Mars by 1985, which I believe to this day was completely doable. But Richard Nixon instead chose to build the space shuttle and I think largely because of pressure from the National Security Agency and other national security-type outfits.

President Nixon and NASA Administrator James Fletcher, 1972 (Courtesy NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

Back in those days spy satellites used film, and it was very difficult to capture the film and get it back to Earth. There was a lot of thought that space shuttles could be used to repair spy satellites in orbit. Before long, I think all the military and spy agencies saw that it was far cheaper to use digital technology and that the shuttle cost a fortune — $1.4 billion dollars on average was the cost of every shuttle launch. That’s a huge amount of money. It’s cheaper to build another spy satellite and send it up into space than to have a secret mission to go up to the shuttle and repair it.

So we were left with this technology called the space shuttle that didn’t have anywhere to go and didn’t have anything to do. We built the [International] Space Station so that it would have a place to go, but even the Space Station has had very limited positive impact on the world of science and on our understanding of space and what we can do in space. NASA and governments that have gotten into the space business have been without any kind of vision or meaningful direction for a long, long time. And I think this whole idea of going to Mars and becoming a spacefaring species and becoming a two-planet species that we can actually preserve humans far longer than we can preserve Earth.

From 1952–1954, Collier’s published a series of articles speculating about the future of space exploration. Von Braun contributed his vision for getting to Mars. (Courtesy Collier’s)

CT: What are SpaceX’s challenges?

SP: The primary challenge that SpaceX has is to get a significant number of people to Mars. It’s one thing to get to Mars and land a few astronauts and maybe even bring them back. It is entirely a different proposition and a complete magnitude of change to get people to Mars in significant numbers and keep them alive there. You’re not going to create a two-planet species unless you get something like at least a million people to Mars. And that requires a level of rocketry that no one has ever really thought of, except Wernher von Braun, who had a plan back in 1948 for getting hundreds of people to Mars.

SpaceX is designing a rocket that will carry 100 people at a time. Even more significant than that is Elon Musk intends to build hundreds of them, maybe a thousand of them. And by 2050, it’s his avowed intention to be able to launch a thousand rockets with 80 to 100 people aboard to Mars in a single voyage. And that’s how you build a large, sustainable society on Mars.

Now, if all those rockets are reusable, as I think they will be, then they will come back after dropping off 80,000 people and come back and two years later set out for Mars again. So you will be adding tens of thousands of people to the surface of Mars, by the year 2050, every two years. And that’s a huge challenge.

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