Should we go to Mars as a united planet Earth?

Yesterday I read an interesting article on the Explore Mars Inc website. An oped which will also be published in several media outlets. The crux of the story is very straightforward; “We should head to Mars as a united planet Earth”. Recent events in the space industry though makes me wonder. “Should we go to Mars as a united earth”?

Working together.
Now, I have to point out, I’m a member of Explore Mars Netherlands and therefor somewhat biased. Nevertheless I’ll give my own opinion. The article notes the great success of the unmanned robot rover Curiousity. Also it laments the end of cooperation between ESA and NASA on the future ExoMars project. The authors point out how succesful international cooperation is and as an example they mention the ISS. Even though the ISS is seen as a big white elephant.

Big white elephant ISS
A big white elephant?

The ISS project did finish though and is regularly used. Whether everybody is happy with the ISS and its operational costs remains to be seen. Explore Mars Inc sees the ISS as a model for getting big space projects started and finished and urges for a Sample Return Mission to Mars in the manner of international cooperation. As mentioned the scientific interest for a Sample Return Mission is clearly present. The question is how deep this interst is but how wide.

Robot fatigue.
From this point on I start to have my doubts. Curiousity may be a huge engineering success an its photos are again stunning, it doesn’t get the attention anymore of the wider public. Curiousity really is a big monster, but it isn’t exactly regularly frontpage news. The public and politicians are getting perhaps a bit of robot fatigue and Curiousity could be the last big robot to Mars. So what has happened? Short answer, a shifting focus.

Yet another big white elephant
Martian Sample Return Mission.

Shifting focus.
In fact, what the ISS did cause was a sense that international cooperation was expensive and cumbersome. At the time just after the cold war it was an excellent project to do and it did help to improve relations between former enemies. It also pointed to a severly disfunctional Space Shuttle program. The US clearly needed to reasses its manned space program.

And so it did. Gradually it allowed private parties to deliver space services in stead of NASA. For instance SpaceX is delivering cargo to the ISS as we speak. Also the US started to facilitate private companies to do their own “space thing” outside of NASA. Space tourism was born. These new policies will have implications for future space projects.

Big brother goes to Mars.
An important implication is that the attention of the media and the public is put back to Earth. In the near future it will be possible for average Joe to go suborbital and with a bit more money go full orbit. Suddenly space isn’t something exclusively for space and science geeks, you know, that 0.1% of the population. Space has become truely commercial. When we talk space we mention Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Burt Rutan etc.

One of the more adventurous commercial space projects is Mars One. This Dutch enterprise envisiones a one way ticket to Mars. This journey will use off the shelf commercial hardware and is fully private funded. No sciency jusification needed. It pays by streaming 24×7 the daily life of the crew to Earth just like Big Borther. On route and on Mars.

At the crossroads.
Will a United States or an EU still be interested in big ticket international projects like a Sample Return Mission when the public wants to go suborbital or visit a space hotel? Will the nations go to Mars as “One” if the true frontier and the commercial opportunities are near Earth? If commercial space keeps going forward we might have to choose which path to go. Big scientific robotic government programs catering for a tiny public of scientists or commercial space enterprises for a wide audience.

My guess is the future is rather like Mars One and less like yet antoher big white elephant of scientific space robot. We space geeks live in exciting times. Thanks to commercial space we see a glimmer of hope of the science fiction we love come true. If only for a tourist ride to near Earth Space.

A one way trip to Mars with Mars One

Recently Mars One got a lot of attention in the Dutch media, Arno Wielders did some television work and the organasation got to do a radio interview. Started in May 2012, Mars One certainly had its fair share of time in the spotlights. Maybe I finally should write my thoughts about it.

Well, what does Mars One want? In a nuttshell, a permanent settlement of humans on Mars. and do they want to accomplish that? By using of the shelf technology and finance the project purely commercially. As a big television event.

Mars One isn’t the first one to come up with a plan to colonize Mars. NASA tried it, but came with a ridiculous expensive project which was shot down almost immediately. With that bad experience in mind, the Mars Society presented their Mars Direct plan. The first practical approach to put humans on Mars.

Mars Direct uses off the shelf technology and tries to keep costs as low as possible. It did take a page from NASA, the astronauts returned back to earth after the visit to Mars. This does complicates things, you need to create an infrastructure to bring the people back.

Mars One Base
A permanent base on Mars envisioned by Mars One. Photo: Mars One

Also, like NASA, Mars Direct assumes that the astronauts will have to do something “useful”. Obviously that would be doing sciency stuff and since time on Mars is limited, the astronauts can’t be bothered with all kinds of mondane tasks. Like setting up a settlement. Another big issue of doing science as your main task is that you will come in conflict with the “robot crowd”. And that’s a can of political worms you don’t want to open.

So how does Mars One go about it. First, they make their intention quite clear. They want a permanent settlement of humans on Mars. Secondly, science isn’t their main goal. Instead they want a kind of “Big Brother” in space. A continous media stream of the daily life of the settlers will pay the bill of this endeavour. But most importantly, the journey is a one way ticket.

A one way ticket to Mars has been proposed earlier but got very negative reaction for being suicidal. It is a very clever idea though. It prevent much complcation and saves ton of money. Probably due to the rise of firms like SpaceX, Mars One doesn’t seem to crazy. Elon Musk has similar ideas about humans in space and has proven that it is possible to create a much cheaper space infrastructure.

For now Mars One has the wind in its sails. They can base their plan on the technologies developed by the likes of SpaceX and thanks to all the commercial space hooplah Mars One isn’t depicted as a bunch of lunatics. Also, not interfering with the science crowd (and their precious budgets), their Mars settlers can focus on one thing only, setting up a permanent settlement.

Mars One explains much better their project than I’ll ever can. They’ve got a fantastic website, well made and very clear. One last note, the roadmap they envision is awfully tight. I doubt it is possible on such a short notice, but that might not be that important. What counts is that Mars One presented a realistic and affordable plan to put humans on Mars. If it will be 2033 instead of 2023 would fine with me. I definitely will blog more on clubs like Mars One, what drives them and put my own spin ont it.

Space Merchandise for Space Travel Geeks

I’m always looking out for space merchandise, especially if it is well made. In our modern world you can buy an enormous amount of junk and trinkets, just look at the stores in you main street and see the plastic thrash everywhere. A webshop like Zazzle takes it a step further, billions of crappy designs are already shlepped onto a growing list of “useful” products. Are people rally buying that muck?

Sometimes a company wants to make a small amount of objects, do it well and put their heart and soul into it. Such a company is Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. They make this for instance:

space merchandise

Their products are fun but can also be inspiring. And do “space products” not say; “Hey, I’m into science, rational thought and the future”? Well, at least they are my crowd. For me they inspire me to create better and more original designs and I’ll keep searching for these kind of businesses. And maybe I’ll start my own Space Merchandise business.

Again, the New Frontier

So I was logged into Facebook and looked what Arno Wielders had posted recently. He always knows to find some gems. This time a Youtube video of a Ted talk made by the one of the founders of Xcor, Jeff Greason. It’s about why NASA isn’t the future and why those space 2.0 startups are. Welcome to the new frontier.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8PlzDgFQMM[/youtube]

I hope his business model will work. A great talk, about why it’s hard and why NASA is making it harder. There was one obstacle I missed and that’s the government. Rockets and rocket propelled planes are high energy objects and those things make any government jumpy. How much free market and liberty you might crave for your space business, government will enforce its regulation.

In the end it will be a tug-o-war between government and the space companies on how much those companies are allowed to do. For instance to the new frontier.

A Dragon Took Flight

Again a big triumph for SpaceX, the space company of Elon Musk. It had its maiden launch of its capsule Dragon. The launch vehicle itself, the Falcon 9, was only the second of its model. The Dragon reached its orbit and for what I gathered it came into the ocean safely.



Launch of the 2nd Falcon 9 with the Dragon.

The Dragon is primarily a freighter ship for supplying the ISS, for this SpaceX has a contract under the COTS program. If launching future Dragons and returning them to earth will go flawlessly, a manned Dragon may be possible. America will has its successor for the Space Shuttle

For now, marvel at the ongoing miracle called SpaceX.

Crochet Rocket

This is one of NASA’s better endeavours, “space crafting” with wool. Isn’t it cute?



….woooooosh….

If you’re artistic and know how to craft, you can enter a competition and get your creation on the last Shuttle flight. But hurry up, the deadline is the 2nd of November.

The competition is brought to you by NASA and Etsy, Etsy being an online social website for selling all things crafted. It’s funny to see a multi billion operation as NASA teaming up with the small scale cottage industry individuals of Etsy.

Maybe it’s a sign of the time, big government (and big corp for that matter) trying to get in touch with the “grass root” population. A population which is less and less charmed by big governments and big corporations. One way people expressing their feelings is by making their own products and selling these online with as little “middlemen” as possible.

Is this this new “maker” movement you keep hearing about?

Water on the Moon. Finally?

Probably everybody interested in space affairs has already read the good news about the confirmation of water on the Moon. The results of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) were in and they found 5.6 per cent water in the material ejected by its companion LCROSS (Lunar Crater Remote Observation and Sensing Satellite). LCROSS and a rocket stage impacted on the moon in order to create two visible plumes of Moon material.


Image by the LRO Diviner Lunar Radiometer Experiment
Now, during the decades the discussion was whether the Moon contains water or not. For future long term manned Moon missions that would be a big plus. The rocks from the Apollo missions indicated to a bone dry Moon. Hope was put on the eternal shadows of the Lunar poles where water could be deposited by the solar wind and remain there. An idea that was difficult to proof and until the LRO mission for the pro Moon lobby something like grasping at straws.

Large quantities of water and other volatiles are now pretty certain, so what’s the big deal. Well, remember the little capsule on top of the Saturnus Moon rocket? That was the only thing that returned to earth of this huge spaceship. Most of it was fuel. Now what if you could produce the fuel for taking of the Moon and returning to earth on the Moon itself? That would save an enormous amount of expensive lift-off mass on earth. A moon-base could get to be much more affordable and it could produce fuel and consumables for other kinds of space missions.

With this confirmation the attention is getting back to the Moon. Bush’s Moon-plans died pretty much under Obama and Obama aims at the Mars. But without real commitment. It looks that the future manned space plans of Obama will be dead on arrival. No concrete plan and no good and solid long term goal. It would direct and waste efforts of the US space community into a dead end for decades to come.

With plenty of volatiles on the Moon (one suspects billions of litres of water in a radius of 10 km from the impact of LCROSS) this satellite becomes interesting again. Especially for the private industry. In my opinion a small space industry near earth is more important for the future of manned space-flight than the Apollo style missions of politicians. The Moon as producer of fuel and consumables would be a good step in the right direction.