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Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Like many, I've been fascinated about outer space.  The unknowns, the vastness and the challenges.  I worked on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) for NASA's Ames Research Center, where one of my close neighbors was the Blackbird.  Interestingly enough, this spy plane was just placed in a large hangar with no security.  I could walk up anytime to touch it if I wanted.

Mars has intrigued us for a very long time:
  • Before the second millennium BC in Egypt Mars was portrayed on the ceiling of Seti 1's (right, who ruled around 3300 years ago) tomb. What a name. 
  • Plato, 2635 years ago, indicated that the Moon was the closest, Sun next, then Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.   
  • Galileo Galilei in 1610 was the first to actually observe Mars by telescope.  
  • The two moons, Phobos and Deimos, were found by Asaph Hall using the telescope at the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1877.  This was the year Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli used a telescope to draw the canals of Mars.
    • Percival Lowell popularized these canals in 1897 as built by Martians, the year British author H.G. Wells wrote the War of the Worlds about a Martian invasion.
    • In 1938 Orson Welles performed War of the Worlds on radio and caused mass hysteria.  It was Halloween, but many missed the disclaimer.

    Humanity has since then been mesmerized about life on the Red Planet.

    There was a time when success in space was, indeed, important, in fact, crucial.  Sputnik 1 in 1957 shattered America ego's and convinced me to become an engineer. That jolt led to President John Kennedy announcing the Apollo Moon Project nearly half a century ago, costing the U.S. government $25.4 billion, worth about $140 billion today.  It was worth it.  First, we succeeded, but, more importantly, beat the Soviet Union and bankrupted them for trying too hard in space.  The reward was ending the Cold War, where Mankind was the push of a button away from oblivion.

    The Soviet Union started in 1960 a series of Mars probes.  A few made it there, but failed to complete the intended mission.  In the 70's, NASA first succeeded with Viking 1.  I was one of the very few, with Carl Sagan and other scientists at Ames, to view the first line-by-line transmission of a photo from Mars.  To quote from that link:

    Who knows, maybe fuzzy Green Ladies could have shown up. I still remember Sagan pontificating as to why the color of Mars had a salmon-tinge, and commented so in fine scientific detail…except, well into his elocution, a technician sheepishly commented, “Dr. Sagan, we haven’t yet applied the correction filters.” That’s the only time I saw Sagan visibly embarrassed. It turned out that the addition of the filters did not change the salmon hue.

    We need to continue the science for the sake of our future and to inspire minds of the next generations, but I am becoming more and more dubious about excessive spending on major hardware projects.  Viking 1 and 2 cost a billion dollars.  Six years ago Curiosity (left, before launch), the Mars Science Laboratory rover, landed, cost around $2.5 billion and did not find life.  A lot of wordsmithing about how successful this project was.  Is there water on Mars?  Probably.

    Launches to Mars

      Most missions to Mars have failed.  The Soviet Union has been particularly inept.  However, we're improving the odds, but Man on Mars by 2030?

      Since JFK, every following president, save for Jimmy Carter, has had some semblance of a manned mission to Mars plan:
      An MIT study a few years ago was particularly critical of sending humans to Mars now, to quote:

      And at a certain point, you'd have to ask yourself, if all I'm doing on Mars is maintenance work in a cave to keep myself alive, why did I even come?

      By their analysis, the notion of setting up permanent settlements is irrational because a person could not survive for much more than two months on Mars.

      Today, there is no real need to spend big bucks in space.  Sure, expand scientific research and leverage what is already out there.  No more International Space Stations (and the current one will crash back to Earth in less than a decade at a cost of $160 billion, without forming even one profitable company selling anything from out there).

      Yet, many keep romantically gazing at Mars as the future of Planet Earth.  They view that barren planet much like European explorers in the mid 15th century colonizing the rest of our World. 

      Two big differences.  There are no spices of worth on Mars and it is too expensive and dangerous to try anything monumental today.  Someday, of course, but that could be a millennium or more into the future.

      Sure, finding life on Mars would be wonderful, but that's about it.  Water bears (also known as tardigrades and moss piglets) here on our globe can live without food or water for 120 years, withstand pressures six times greater that the bottom of our ocean, survive just above absolute zero and in boiling water, tolerate radiation hundred times more than we can and live in a vacuum.  There are more than 1,150 known species, and they date back to 530 million years ago.  Chances are they don't live on Mars, and, most probably, nothing else either.

      The cost of a Moon-type mission to Mars would be expected to cost $1.5 trillion.  In 2002, the European Space Agency and Russia said the cost would be $20 billion to send a six-person crew to Mars.   However, Mars One (the Netherlands) indicated in 2012 only $6 billion to bring the first four people to Mars, with no return.  This is the effort criticized by the MIT report above.  Elon Musk only plans to spend $300 million for a Mars visit.  However, back in 2012 he estimated $36 billion for his Mars colony.   It's his money, but he's only worth $20 billion.  Sure, there is something about an ultimate challenge and the romance of space.  But why?

      Tropical Cyclone Marcus is now officially a Super Tropical Cyclone at 160 MPH.  However, he is safely at sea well west of Australia and will weaken before heading towards Perth:


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