Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Journey to Mars... Why? And Where's the To Infinity and Beyond?

Hanging out with my celestial buddy Mars - Oct. 2015

"Why Mars? Mars is the horizon goal for pioneering space; it is the next tangible frontier for expanding human presence.”
- NASA's Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration

I hadn't even finished reading the document NASA released last week when questions popped into my head that the report couldn't answer. Why are we so focused on Mars? What is a horizon goal? And why the sudden shift to the word pioneering? (I still don't have an answer to that last one – anyone have an insight?)

The term “horizon goal” comes from the National Research Council's 2014 report: Pathways to Exploration.

“The technical analysis completed for this study shows clearly that for the foreseeable future the only feasible destinations for human exploration are the Moon, asteroids, Mars, and the moons of Mars. Among that small set of plausible goals for human space exploration, the most distant and difficult is a landing by human beings on the surface of Mars; it would require overcoming unprecedented technical risk, fiscal risk, and programmatic challenges. Thus, the 'horizon goal' for human space exploration is Mars. All long-range space programs, by all potential partners, for human space exploration converge on that goal.”

The report expands upon this reasoning in a later section. Within their interpretation of feasible for the foreseeable future, there are two destinations with gravity wells, and we should pursue the farther and more difficult one: Mars. Is it just me, or does this seem arbitrary and unnecessarily limiting?

It has been a slightly Mars-centric year for me. For Christmas last year, my husband gifted me Mars and a few other solar system body plush toys which made an appearance at my wedding in January. Early in the year I read Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (which I strongly disliked – heresy, I know). I read Andy Weir's The Martian mid-year and caught the excellent movie on opening night. With the Hollywood celebrations, hyped-up NASA Mars water findings, and the unrealistic but much promoted NASA Journey to Mars report, it's no surprise that Mars is on everyone's mind and lips.

I have nothing against Mars. I support human and robotic exploration of Mars just as much as the Moon or any other location. I greatly prefer this turn of direction over the humans-to-asteroid silliness that even the creator of the idea couldn't convince me was a good one. My doctoral research had just as much to do with Martian regolith as it did lunar, asteroid, planetasimal, and any other solar system regolith.

Mars regolith simulant under a microscope - summer 2012

I do have a strong personal bias toward the Moon. The Moon is right there, our closest neighbor, just waiting for us to explore and study in in the ways we didn't and couldn't do in the decades past. The third grader in me that wrote a story about being an astronaut on the Moon still wants that reality. The explorer in me wants to walk on another world, a world truly accessible within my lifetime. The planetary scientist in me wants to examine all of the questions that we can't answer any other way than field geology.

In comparison, I have little interest in being an astronaut on Mars or on a space station. I won't say no to either of those pursuits, but my heart is elsewhere. I have interest in suborbital spaceflight because I believe that it is the most obtainable goal for a private citizen such as myself. I have a great deal of interest in companies such as Golden Spike who work toward private lunar missions, even if it seems like a dream goal.

But that's just me. Others have their favorite destinations, their callings, their dreams and pie-in-the-sky goals. My personal dream should not limit anyone. The personal dream of others to land humans on Mars should not limit anyone. Why should the NRC, NASA, or anyone else define a horizon goal and stop there? Let's say we humans plant our flag on the Martian surface – what then? Do we stop, as we did with Apollo? Do we settle? Do we explore on? If the latter, what makes Mars a horizon goal any more than the Moon or low-Earth orbit or any other destination or achievement?

Mars is a goal, without a doubt. But it should not be the goal. No one has the right to define and scope what the future objectives for humanity are or could be. That's up to all of us collectively and it's up to the generations that will come after us. Why should we let the hype of 2015 limit us? It's all arbitrary anyway. Moon last week, asteroid yesterday, Mars today, what tomorrow?

Our robots explore Mars currently, such as MSL Curiosity - JPL, July 2010

“There is a consensus in national space policy, international coordination groups, and the public imagination that Mars is the horizon goal of human space exploration,” wrote the National Research Council in 2014. No, there is no consensus, and that's the point. We humans change our minds, we debate and disagree, we hold different perspectives, we challenge each other, and we accomplish more that way.

"Today we are chasing our tails because the space experts debate destinations: Moon, Mars, or asteroid? O’Neill and I say do them all. The ‘horizon goal’ isn’t Mars, it is the entire solar system. When we have built colonies on every habitable niche, then maybe we will find a way to go to the stars. I didn’t say bankrupt the treasury. Don’t squander other people’s money; figure out how to do it anyway. Nobody said that it would be easy. But what is our choice?”

I concur. Let 2015 be the year to celebrate Mars (and Pluto!). But let's not limit 2016 and beyond.

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