November 27, 2012, 1:59 PM — A couple of weeks ago I wrote about NASA's commitment to get "back to the moon," as an agency official said. I was unenthused:
Maybe it's best to be cautious, but this strikes me as an unnecessary and wasteful space goal. There's nothing interesting on the moon. We've been there before. If we're going to do space, let's do it boldly. Anything less is pointless.
A couple of readers politely objected. Here's astropaz:
We are far from knowing all there is to know about the Moon, the Apollo missions brought back a wealth of knowledge about how the solar system has formed, a telescope on the far side of the Moon would out perform any land based or LEO based telescope and answer many more of the questions we have about the universe.
And JH commented:
If someone builds a giant sea going vessel, should they do the final assembly and launch it from Nebraska? or is it better to build a dry dock then assemble and launch the vessel from a port as close to the water as possible?
Both of these commenters are right. There's plenty more to learn about the moon (and, therefore, Earth, our solar system and beyond), plus the moon can serve as a useful base for scientific and logistical reasons.
But if I had written that post the day before or the day after, I easily could have argued that returning to the moon was a logical step. The truth is I go back and forth about how ambitious human space exploration should be.
(You also can read: Bizarre stuff you never knew about Venus and Mars and The (literally) unbelievable UFO war in Antarctica)
And that's because I'm objective about the technologically daunting, fantastically expensive and dangerous challenge of sending humans to live in space and on another planet. Space is an absolutely unforgiving environment for humans. And so are our nearest planetary neighbors.
Which leads to billionaire Elon Musk's ambitious goal to start what he hopes eventually could be a colony of 80,000 humans living on Mars.
Musk, founder of private spaceflight company SpaceX, laid out his plans in a recent speech to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. As reported by Space.com's Rob Coppinger, Musk "wants to help establish a Mars colony of up to 80,000 people by ferrying explorers to the Red Planet for perhaps $500,000 a trip."
In Musk's vision, the ambitious Mars settlement program would start with a pioneering group of fewer than 10 people, who would journey to the Red Planet aboard a huge reusable rocket powered by liquid oxygen and methane. ...
Accompanying the founders of the new Mars colony would be large amounts of equipment, including machines to produce fertilizer, methane and oxygen from Mars’ atmospheric nitrogen and carbon dioxide and the planet's subsurface water ice.
The Red Planet pioneers would also take construction materials to build transparent domes, which when pressurized with Mars’ atmospheric CO2 could grow Earth crops in Martian soil. As the Mars colony became more self sufficient, the big rocket would start to transport more people and fewer supplies and equipment.
What the article doesn't mention is how fast the "big rocket" will travel in space. Right now it takes from 150 to 300 days for spacecraft to reach Mars. I'm not sure whether the extra size of the rocket -- which is now in prototype and which Musk hopes is ready to use in five or six years -- is intended to cut the travel time or carry a large payload. If it's the latter, we're talking about humans traveling in space for anywhere from five to 10 months. There are a lot of unknowns involved in that alone, never mind trying to create a sustainable environment for humans on Mars.
The other question I have about Musk's vision is the time frame. Let's say SpaceX can get people to the surface of Mars by 2025. How long will it take to go from that initial handful of Mars colonists to a community of 80,000? By the end of the century? By 2075?
I really, really want to believe this is possible in my lifetime. You're reading the words of a guy who told his lunch tablemates in second grade that his father was an astronaut (a total lie, but unverifiable by a bunch of 7-year-olds in the pre-Internet era!), a guy who was riveted by Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon, a guy who was thrilled by the initial reports (later dismissed) that the Viking landers had detected evidence of life on Mars in 1976, a guy who loved the exploits of the Robinson Family in Lost in Space. I want us to reach for the stars! Because space is the final frontier!
But I don't want humans -- even willing and daring ones -- to die a lonely, horrible death in space because we really weren't technologically, scientifically or physically advanced enough for survivable deep-space travel.
I'm curious to see what readers think about this whole topic. Specifically:
* Can a colony of humans survive indefinitely on Mars?
* If so, how soon could that happen?
* What types of people should be among the pioneers? (Let's assume price is not an object because money could be raised to cover the ticket price for certain people.)
* When will we see a rocket fast enough to make the trip to Mars in a matter of weeks or even days?
* What would the propellant be?
* Is there an upper limit to how fast humans can safely travel in space?