New research confirms: Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids

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Hard questions for manned space travel buffs. The usually chipper Discover magazine gave its June cover to the grim topic "Are We Trapped On Earth?" a roundup of recent research on the hazards of long-term space travel by aerospace legacy MG Lord. The story is online now, and the catalogue of hardships is a regular frozen o-ring of bad mojo: solar flares, cosmic rays that can't even be shielded by lead, delta radiation; massive brain cell loss; astronauts coming down with shingles and cataracts; expired pharmaceuticals; and a whole lot more. Featuring a psychedelic brain damage trip with Fightin' Buzz Aldrin. Outside the protection of the Earth's magnetic field (less the South Atlantic Anomaly, or Brazilian Wax), such classic astrobiological challenges as zero-g nausea and bone tissue loss start to seem like kids' stuff.

Read the whole article. There's beaucoup NASA cooperation on this piece, and the space agency is now thumping the tub for bases on the moon and Mars, so the tone is one of can-do readiness. Many (though not all) sources look at all these challenges and declare, "With an armload of this stuff, I wouldn't be afraid of a supernova!" Possible solutions include speeding up spacecraft; sending up Space Cowboys so old nobody will miss them when they succumb; selecting astronauts with better genetic odds for radiation-resistance (a potential growth area for Hiroshima survivors and their descendants); and my favorite: genetically engineering mutant astronauts who can deal with it all. Most of the proposed solutions are pretty far out there (like the president's unserious and unfunded proposal to go to Mars); more important, they're far in the future. All of which supports my belief that for the time being space nuts, and particularly those who are not spending their own money, should focus on unmanned exploration. As always, contrary opinions are welcome.

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  1. …..cosmic rays that can’t even be shielded by lead…. – TC

    So, maybe now Ben Grimm will stop giving all that guff to Reed Richards? It’s not like adding more shielding would’ve helped.

    Kevin
    (Raised to think that Mars Is Heaven)

  2. A lot of people just have no patience. We’ll get out there when it’s time and not before.

  3. I believe Wired magazine suggested a one way trip to Mars. I’m sure there would be takers, not me thanks.

  4. In discussions I have heard on the topic of the harsh environment of interplanetary space (most recently, via the Scientific American podcast, at http://www.sciam.com), people say that it is indeed possible for insulation and magnetic/electrostatic shielding to make an interplanetary spacecraft habitable over the long haul, but that the cost of putting such a craft in space would be prohibitive, because its size and mass would be so enormous.

    So why not build the interplanetary craft in space, and never have it land on or take off from a planet? Think of the interplanetary craft as the big cruise ship and the planetary landers as the launches used to get passengers to and from shore. The “mother ship” would have all the serious (and massive) protection for the crew; the landers would count on a planet’s own local magnetic field or other close-in characteristics to protect the crew while away from the big ship.

    It’s not as if we haven’t seen this kind of stuff in science fiction for many years. It was realized long ago that single, multipurpose crafts, suitable for both long-haul travel as well as planetary landing and takeoff, were impractical. Even the starship Enterprise was originally specified as never landing on a planet, and as having been constructed in space. So why is today’s debate proceeding as if the multi-vehicle strategy had been considered or rejected — or was never considered at all?

    If we’re serious about interplanetary exploration, we better get busy, putting some kind of manufacturing ability in Earth orbit. We better get busy, fetching raw materials from asteroids, or at least sending them up to the “factory” on the installment plan.

    As an aside, I heard Elton John sing a jam-band version of “Rocket Man” in San Jose last night, and I only wish he would release that version on an album. It was, for lack of a better word, “cosmic.”

  5. Not to be a stick in the mud, but rather a more curious/cautious adventurer type, I’m not convinced it’s time to go to Mars just yet.

    I used to think space travel would be the ultimate “trip”. I recently saw some things that cause me to want a lot more, as in a “whole lot” more study.

    The scientists are mixed on whether or not there was ever water on Mars. Water as we know it is the prime element necessary for life.

    I believe water is ruled out as currently being a “known” on Mars. But dust storms are definitely known to be there. One recent National Geographic presentation showed dust storms covering the entire planet at times.

    We have dust storms here on earth, also. The same NG presentation showed that a few years ago one dust storm that began over the Sahara desert was followed by satellite photography until it dissipated over the Arctic. On the way it dumped dust on England, and six days later they began slaughtering cattle by the millions after the dust storm deposited hoof and mouth disease on the cattle industry there. I had read before that there were places people were being banned from on account of hoof and mouth disease, but I had never known the source of the disease until I saw the National Geographic presentation. Nor do I know how long people are banned from the affected areas. I can imagine that an area where millions, (as many as 10 million), cows had to be slaughtered is not a small mom and pop farm operation.

    Who knows but maybe Mad Cow disease is spread the same way. How about Bird Flu? I’m sure they are working on it. Whatever they’re doing, I hope they’re hurrying to get some answers.

    If our dust storms can spread that sort of bacterial life here on earth, I’d be a bit skittish about sending a person to visit a planet that once had life, but had it disappear and leave only dust. I’d like to know what may be “in” that dust.

    So, I’d say, as attractive as it seems, and with all the commotion urging the effort on, before we invest human life, and the necessary support requirements for a human trip to Mars, let’s first send up some round trip probes, and study some samples.. . . lot’s of samples.

    And the lab to do the study might well be on a space station to determine whether it is compatible with our own eco system here on earth. Who knows, maybe there’s something up there just waiting to get wet agan so it can take over the earth in it’s rejuvenated form.

    If we can send landers to the moon and other planets, surely we can send up a round trip version to at least get some air samples as a starting point.

    It may be that we will find out that we don’t “really” want to send anybody up there after all.

  6. and my favorite: genetically engineering mutant astronauts who can deal with it all.

    Don’t forget you recently mentioned Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus. Perhaps cybernetic human enhancement might be more feasable than genetically engineered humans.

    Make it an X-prize type scientific competition. The cyborgs vs. the mutants! But will they be human in the end? Stay tuned…

  7. jesus, Elmo, are you the world’s first space hypochondriac or what?

  8. All of the problems mentioned above are merely obstacles to be overcome, not brick-wall barriers to space travel. People used to be convinced that our faces would peel of if we travelled at 60 mph.

    For any NASA staffers reading this post, add the phrase “with increased federal research funds” before the first comma when commenting to the media.

  9. Earth is for pussies.

  10. Ok, so it’s not a good place to raise your kids, but is it ok to leave them there for a while?

  11. Pohl’s _Man Plus_ is pretty cool, but the best way to get to Mars is the way John Carter in Burroughs’ books gets there. (Not to mention, the natives he finds there are alot more exciting than the life on Mars depicted in the Pohl book. I don’t think Frank Frazetta or Michael Whelan would even bother painting the mushrooms or lichen or whatever it is that dominates Mars in the Pohl book.)

  12. TrickyVic,

    No. In fact, it’s cold as hell.

  13. All of the problems mentioned above are merely obstacles to be overcome, not brick-wall barriers to space travel.

    Quite right.

    The fact that every man, woman, and child in the United States doesn’t have a unicycle is also an obstacle that can be be overcome, with enough effort and money.

    The question is whether it’s worth it.

  14. Tim, I think this all gets down to whether you have the exploration/expansion bug or not. If you do, the need to move into space (method and timing arguments aside) is self-evident. If you don’t, then the whole business is suspect. I don’t contend that this is akin to a religious argument or anything, but it does fail to be much of an arguable point because we’re really talking about core beliefs. Space is a huge challenge, and I firmly believe that overcoming all of the obstacles before us can’t help but improve the human condition, but I’m certainly aware that others don’t share that belief.

    In any case, I’m not interested in compelling people to go into space or to fund my interest is space colonization. All I ask is that you stay out of my way when I go.

    This really highlights the problem with government/politics-centered space exploration–everyone gets to throw their two cents in about the wheres, wherefores, and hows, and the reasons for supporting this or that often have little to do with stated goals (a lot of NASA’s efforts seem to have the goal of providing an aerospace industry subsidy, for example). Anyway, you and NASA can send your Roombas to vacuum the various planets and former planets; I’m building a summer cottage on Titan 🙂

  15. “A”? You need at least four. 20″ for tricks, 24″ for commuting, 36″ for cross-country and a giraffe if you need to be seen from a distance.

  16. Humans need new frontiers. Every person needs some amount of personal space — some much more than others. Apart from the wonder of discovery and the fantastic resources we may find “out there,” we will once again have a frontier, which will lure away those people who would otherwise be crushed or driven crazy by crowded, planet-bound “civilization.” People start fighting in mean and nasty ways, whenever you back them into a corner. Space travel will help erase the corner.

    It’s either something like that, or changing people themselves so that they are comfortable, living as cattle (or neutering them en masse, or killing them off with disease and war). Would we like such “domesticated” humans? Would we like to BE them? Not me, which is one big reason why I support space exploration and colonization. Optimistic predictions told me as a child that we’d be going to the planets and be getting ready to launch to the stars by now. In reality, it seems as if space colonization may now not happen in my lifetime. Even though I myself may not get to go, I still support the idea. Go Burt Rutan, Go! Go, Bigelow Aerospace, Go! Go, SpaceX, Go!

  17. People start fighting in mean and nasty ways, whenever you back them into a corner. Space travel will help erase the corner.

    Again, if the need for human living space is motivating space exploration, we should start settling people in Antarctica, in the middle of the Sahara, above the treeline in the Himalayas, at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, or inside active volcanoes. All these places are absolute paradises for human life compared to every known place off the planet.

    I find this a difficult topic, because I too want to see human exploration of space. But there is just no convincing argument for it at this time, and the amount of exploration in this solar system that could be done with robots is so vast that it’s impossible to justify sending people up without a legitimate plan. If private space guys can make a go of sending people into low earth orbit, good on them, but do you realize how far this is from space colonization? Low earth orbit doesn’t even get you close to the moon, and the moon is a trip to the bathroom compared to Mars. These guys need to figure out how to get 100 miles up in some reliable way-after which, as Heinlein said, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system.

    So how about a compromise: Let the private space guys continue doing their thing, and see if they can get anything going toward a more substantial version of space travel. (They’re not as close to it as people like to think.) Get NASA out of manned space travel entirely, but give them a generous budget to keep doing unmanned exploration. Then in a few generations, when people are ready to make the journey to Mars or Europa or wherever, they’ll have some idea of where they’re going, why they’re going there, and what to expect once they get there. Just sending more one-shot capsules so we can get “out there” seems to me like jumping out the window before you’ve looked around to see if there’s a door.

  18. That seems fair, Tim, though I’d rate “inside active volcanoes” and “at the bottom of the Pacific” as rather more hostile than most of the places in the solar system anyone wants to land.

  19. Cavanaugh says, “Again, if the need for human living space is motivating space exploration, we should start settling people in Antarctica, in the middle of the Sahara, above the treeline in the Himalayas, at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, or inside active volcanoes. All these places are absolute paradises for human life compared to every known place off the planet.”

    Not just living space, Tim. And not space for everyone. One’s own space, a place where those who won’t live like cattle will go, braving the dangers, and taking their chances with hostile nature, as long as they get to call their own shots. In a planet of several billion people, there are quite a few of them. Some might actually WANT to colonize Antactica, the sea floor, and other difficult places on Earth. But who would let them? Don’t you think the environmental lobby (not to mention the academic research lobby) would quash serious attempts to settle Antartica or the floors of the Atlantic or Pacific? No matter where a would-be settlement might go on earth, there won’t be a site selection that won’t be disputed by SOMEONE. In that case, you’d have TWO major problems: the engineering problem of ensuring survival in a hostile environment, and the political problem of ensuring that some mob or government or other doesn’t sabotage your plans. Often, the latter is the harder problem to solve, which is one reason many of our ancestors left well-settled Europe to go to the wilds of America. They figured one problem was enough.

    An important point of opening up new frontier is that one doesn’t expect to run into anybody. In space, unless we run into aliens, all of the resources and real estate will be up for grabs. That is another powerful motivation to leave the relatively safe confines of a volcanic caldera or one’s tent in the Sahara, and venture out into space.

    The Frontier is an important pressure safety-valve for society. But in this era of globe-encircling communications and jurisdictions, even inhospitable areas aren’t exactly “the frontier” anymore. Space still is.

  20. Cavanaugh says, “If private space guys can make a go of sending people into low earth orbit, good on them, but do you realize how far this is from space colonization? Low earth orbit doesn’t even get you close to the moon, and the moon is a trip to the bathroom compared to Mars. These guys need to figure out how to get 100 miles up in some reliable way?after which, as Heinlein said, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system.”

    Just as a point of reference, the Bigelow Aerospace Genesis-1 space habitat prototype is now orbiting earth at a distance of around 350 miles. You can compare the G1 prototype to the ISS at http://www.bigelowaerospace.com/out_there/genesis_I_comparison.php.

    Bigelow is planning to put another one up early in 2007, and has put a X-Prize type of bounty on the first privately developed vehicle that can ferry passengers and raw materials back and forth to the real, full-size space station that he ultimately wants to establish. I wish him and his team luck. Except that I worry that, at some point, NASA will step in and say that private space stations are illegal counterfeits of real ones, and that Bigelow should cease and desist immediately. “We don’t want to confuse people about whether what they are looking at is a ‘real space station,'” the bureaucrats will say.

    Hopefully, Americans will support the efforts of the Bigelows of the world and reject government “fiat space programs.” How ironic, were they able to find a way to finance this kind of private enterprise by using Liberty Dollars (see that thread, elsewhere on this board).

  21. One other thing to keep in mind is this: Given that the earth’s resources ARE finite, and we have evidence that has convinced some that even our current population’s economic activities are causing dire environmental consequences, it won’t be long before most of the world follows China’s lead, and restricts population by law. Then, people will be highly motivated to open up a new frontier so as to be able to raise families as they choose, and to avoid being spayed, neutered, or punished for politically incorrect fecundity (perhaps through forced abortions). Then getting into space WILL be a matter of life and death, and people may be willing to take their chances with the unforgiving cosmos, as opposed to the more certain sterilization of themselves or the deaths of their unborn progeny, at the hands of Big Brother. The irony will be that our earthly adversary won’t be Mother Nature so much as the rest of humanity itself.

    I am very confident that this is a likely scenario. IF mankind is unsuccessful in opening up space to humanity sooner rather than later, I hope that Cavanaugh lives long enough to see the scenario come to pass.

  22. Interesting post Tim.

    These guys need to figure out how to get 100 miles up in some reliable way?after which, as Heinlein said, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system.

    That depends a lot on a) how fast you’re going when you reach the 100 mile mark and b) how old you are at that moment. As you said, the moon is a trip to the bathroom compared to Mars. I haven’t seen a warp drive lately, or a manual explaining exactly how I might go about “engaging” one if I found it.

    Heinlein can say whatever the hell he pleases, but the truth is that once you’re 100 miles up, you’re half way to being 200 miles up (and the moon is how far?). The physics of propulsion become a whole different animal. Along with the physics of everything else you might want to do. You can’t even pee the same way up there.

    And remind me why it is that we have trouble making solar collectors work above the atmosphere for any length of time. I think it’s something about the materials keep breaking down due to the types and intensity of the radiation. Much we have to learn about The Force, we do.

    Let the private space guys continue doing their thing, and see if they can get anything going toward a more substantial version of space travel. (They’re not as close to it as people like to think.)

    Amen to both of those.

    Get NASA out of manned space travel entirely, but give them a generous budget to keep doing unmanned exploration.

    You have a lot more faith in them than I do. Since the Apollo missions ended, their only redeeming virtue has been their capacity to do root cause investigations of commercial airline crashes. A much needed service indeed, and one I’m afraid they aren’t sure they should be doing anymore, so they aren’t giving it whole hearted support these days.

    If you want to get anything useful out of NASA, the first thing that has to happen is that Congress must tell them (under penalty of “….or else, no more federal funding”) exactly what they are and aren’t supposed to be doing.

    Your idea of how to delimit their space mission isn’t so bad, though I have little faith in their capacity to innovate by now. They’re much better at failure analysis today than anything else I’ve seen them doing. And that’s left over from the days when they were NACA.

    But then, I’ve always thought the word “aerospace” was an oxymoron. Aerodynamics and outer space have virtually nothing in common, and if you’re actually trained to be good at one, you probably don’t know jack about the other.

    Just sending more one-shot capsules so we can get “out there” seems to me like jumping out the window before you’ve looked around to see if there’s a door.

    Now that’s a curious thing to say. Satallites and drones do send back huge data streams. The idea that somewhere up there we might find some nasty microbes or worse, isn’t so very far fetched. I’d much prefer sending up a drone that does the one-way thing, and learn via data stream, then bring them back home unwittingly.

    I’m all for space travel but I think the reality is a long way off, and it’s going to be risky business for a long time once it really commences.

    Here’s to the Space Vikings, whatever colored hair they end up having (naturally), and whatever they come up with to drink.

  23. I hope they invade lots of planets. 🙂

  24. You want to know the truth about government research labs? They spend a lot of their time running around the country looking for somebody else’s ideas (including each other’s) to go do something with. I have my own little theory as to why they’re stagnant pools by themselves.

    In the early days of NASA, when they were building Apollos, they were also drawing on a pool of science and engineering talent that had had no choice but to survive in a free market. That constraint was a better final exam than anything a professor has ever come up with (and I could be an engineering professor if I wanted, so do let me throw the first stone).

    Early NASA used people from an age where most R&D was still happening in private industry. But about the time NASA was flying their last Apollos, was also about the time that government grants to academia started taking over R&D in a big way. There is an inverse correlation over time between the amount of R&D that happens in academia, versus what happens in private industry. Today industry does little of none (relative to 50 years ago) and most of it is academic. Or government labs, the extension thereof (and which today spend much of their R&D funds on academia anyway).

    Most academic professors have never had to survive in private industry, and many are proud of it. They wouldn’t dream of doing anything so mundane.

    Exactly how the government funded system has changed the mentality of both scientists and engineers, I can’t pretend to explain. I finished my PhD in ’95 so my personal time line is too short. But I know there’s a fundamental difference in mentality (and, I believe, capability and innovation) between academic professors, and the PhDs like myself who’ve chosen private industry instead.

    There are some bright and innovative academic professors, to be sure. But the forest of dead wood that comes with them is substantial. The academics don’t have to be personally innovative, yet they can still climb to the top ranks of their fields. In industry you won’t get away with that crap.

    I think, the problem is that we’ve got a lot more dead wood around the science and engineering community today than we did in 1965. Largely due to government take over of R&D.

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