One way tickets to Mars

I have now largely taken over writing the regular ‘briefing’ for the Comment section of The Sunday Times. This article (below) on the future of the space race is the latest.

It’s here on the Sunday Times website, or after the fold.

Briefing: Space colonies

A Nasa scientist says plans are afoot to send humans to Mars to build a settlement by 2030. However, to cut costs, they will never be able to return

Cal Flyn
The Sunday Times, 31 October 2010

Space invaders

Is there life on Mars? If not, there’s certainly a plan to put it there. Speaking at The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, California, last week, Pete Worden, a leading scientist at the US space agency Nasa, revealed that the aim of the human space programme was now to settle on another world. “Twenty years ago you had to whisper that in dark bars. You’d get fired,” he said. “But now it’s an open thing that we talk about.” The first stop will be Mars. The pioneers will be taking a trip of a lifetime — but with a catch. There will be no return flight. Nasa believes that flying people to and from the planet would be too costly, so volunteers would leave on the understanding that they would never return.

Strife on Mars

Worden, director of Nasa’s Ames Research Center and a former White House adviser, told the foundation that the prototype of a “true spaceship” could be developed within a few years and people could be landing on asteroids and the moons of Mars by 2030. Landing on Mars itself, he said, would need more careful research. Alien life, which some scientists still suspect might exist on the planet, could pose a threat to the pioneers. “If you’re conservative, you’re worried about it killing us. If you’re a liberal, you’re worried about us killing it,” he told the foundation. “We need to be very careful.” However, 40 missions to Mars in 40 years have yet to turn up any clear evidence of life forms — dead or alive.

Costs are astronomical

No return trip means the price tag could be cut by 80%, Worden claims. Former residents returning to the stronger gravity on Earth would require years of costly rehabilitation. Instead, volunteers — expected to be in their sixties — would sign up to live out the rest of their years in the colony. About £1m of funding has already been secured, but Nasa is looking for private investors to support the first mission. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, is understood to have expressed some interest in funding the project. “I told him it will cost $10 billion,” Worden told the conference. “He said, ‘Can you get it down to 1 or 2 billion?’ So now we are getting into a little argument over the price.”

Blueprint drawn up

Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist, co-authored a paper this month for the Journal of Cosmology that offered an insight into such a one-way mission. Four volunteers could be sent to set up the first human outpost. Supplies, such as a nuclear reactor, food, solar panels and instruments, would be sent ahead. Water and oxygen could be found in the large stores of ice on the planet. “Some people would call it scary,” Schulze-Makuch admitted, “but I’d call it thrilling or exciting. These volunteers will be the next big explorers — the new Magellan and Columbus — and they will have a whole planet to themselves.” Mars may be just the start: astronomers in Hawaii say there could be many Earth-sized planets out there.

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