Private enterprise enters the Mars race


By RALPH E. SHAFFER and NORMA JEANNE STROBEL

Forty-four years ago Neil Armstrong stepped off the space capsule ladder and became the first man to plant his feet on the moon’s surface. Standing on the moon, he proclaimed to a waiting earth, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Last week brought news that a carefully selected, devoted, American couple will be selected to embark on a 501-day, round-trip journey to Mars. While they won’t set foot on its surface, they will attempt the first manned flyby of the red planet.

Billionaire Dennis Tito’s planned round trip to Mars in a SpaceX Dragon, carrying the two daredevils, is scheduled for launch in January 2018. Lift-off will occur during a brief orbital alignment between Mars and Earth, and the planets won’t be that close again until 2031. At a press conference experts presented the details of the trip. The hot topic of the day was how the mission intends to keep its participants safe, healthy, and radiation-free during the journey.

Today people planning vacation travel worry about the risks of taking a cruise because of the possibility of becoming cabin-bound with ship-wide stomach virus. Or perhaps, running out of food and water should the ship’s engines catch fire and the ship become powerlessly stuck somewhere out in the deep ocean.

It could be worse. They could be planning a voyage to Mars and worrying about safety and the chances of staying healthy during the space flight. Not to mention a 3 percent increased cancer risk from radiation, no assurance that the flight will return, and the possibility they might be set adrift in never-never-space. And, on the Mars flight, there are no abort options once it’s on its way — if there is an argument, one spouse can’t just go outside and cool off. Well, actually if you go outside, you will cool off — real fast.

Only a few years ago, Dennis Tito paid some $20 million for a ride to the International Space Station aboard the Russian spacecraft Soyuz, and earned the title “World’s First Space Tourist.” Before that, we might have dismissed as crazy all this talk about SpaceX putting humans on Mars by 2031. But, because of Tito’s goal of a 2018 manned Mars flyby drawing on the experience of a government-subsidized industry and the results of countless NASA Mars launches, there is less chance of ridicule today.

The success of the NASA Mars Curiosity rover-landing is enormous, but the trailblazing successes of private companies like California-based SpaceX, run by billionaire Elon Musk, which just successfully rendezvoused for the third time with the International Space Station to deliver food, supplies, and equipment, demonstrates that the path to ferrying astronauts is within realistic boundaries.

Non-government companies like Planetary Resources, Golden Spikes, and Wired are outshining NASA with its limitations imposed by a deeply divided Congress, a seemingly disinterested president and a frozen budget. Private plans for asteroid mining, tourist trips, and even establishing living communities on Mars are being discussed.

Tito pledged two years of personal funding to the Mars flyby mission, hoping that will inspire other private contributions. His goal for this project is to encourage Americans to believe in doing hard things that make our nation great, and interest our young people to seek education in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics that make those hard things possible.

The Mars flyby will be the forerunner of a new generation of space exploration by the private sector.

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona in California. Norma Jeanne Strobel is a retired professor at Santa Ana College in California. Walter Golden contributed to this article.

 

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