Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mars Society - Final Thoughts

I wrote about the first three days of the Mars Society Conference and then fizzled out. So here are a few final thoughts and things I forgot to mention before.

I did mention seeing The Mars Underground on Thursday night, but since then the Space Review has carried an excellent review and discussion of the film by Dwayne A. Day, including some interesting observations on the conference and on the role of Dr. Robert Zubrin in promoting the case for humans on Mars.

The Saturday night banquet was pretty enjoyable for a dry event, though the entertainment and awards were full of insider jokes and references that a first-timer like me wouldn't really get. That's OK - Mars fans are an interesting extended family to watch (and start to join) just the same.

I went to a few track papers on various subjects and was struck on the one hand by the big picture optimism regarding humans on Mars ("we have the technology - all we need is the decision and the money"), and on the other hand by the difficulty of the details. Several papers pointed out the need for more extensive and realistic simulations of missions (by this I mean analog simulations, where people practice aspects of Mars missions in ground-based simulations of spacecraft, in the desert or in the Arctic). While these partial simulations are interesting and useful, more realistic simulations will be needed before we send 4-6 people on the way to Mars with only themselves to keep everything working (and everyone breathing).

We talk about "pseudo G" from tether-rotated spacecraft, and while the physics of this is clear, no one has actually done this with living things on an extended basis, let alone humans. Can a nearly closed life support system be made to work in space (and on Mars) for some four years? Can all the mechanical systems of the spacecraft work well for the time needed? The ISS is not a fair test since it is close to Earth and is resupplied and repaired on a regular basis. Even the issue of aerobraking into Mars orbit is a problem - it's never been done with a 40 tonne spacecraft. People are thinking about and working on this stuff. But if "Mars by 2020" really has a chance, we need to solve the big picture and sweat all these "small" details. I think it's possible, but 14 years doesn't sound like a huge amount of time to do it all, even with Uncle Sam's and Elon Musk's checkbooks.

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