Friday, June 05, 2009

Why Mars? Why Now?

I don't remember how I came across this, but IEEE Spectrum (electrical engineering professional society journal) has a special feature this week called "Why Mars? Why Now?" with some 33 articles, features, and opinion pieces by a range of authors. With sections labeled Challenges, Business, Voyage, Strategy, Exploration, and Space Ambitions, this special feature covers a lot of ground. Articles include "Why a Manned Mission to Mars Seems as Far Away as Ever" (countered by an article "How to Go to Mars - Right Now!" by - you guessed it - Robert Zubrin - go Bob!), "Space is Risky Business" by Elon Musk (he should know), and "10 Favorite Mars Novels" by Kim Stanley Robinson (he should know). And many more, including an interview with Owen and Richard Garriott, father and son space travelers.

Great stuff, though I don't know how long the top level page will stay around since I've never looked at any IEEE special reports before (it's a generic "special-reports" URL), which is why I included some of the direct article links above. This may be a more permanent link, though it's hard to tell since I've had a lot of trouble accessing these articles for some reason (slow and/or very busy server?).

The upshot is that getting humans to Mars is a complex, multifaceted, interesting, and difficult problem, though opinions vary on just how difficult, with Robert Zubrin's "we have the technology - let's do it now" being the most optimistic (he's the president of the Mars Society, of which I am a card-carrying member).

There's also an opinion piece called "The Mars Challenge," by Dr. Leah H. Jamieson, an EE professor at Purdue University. She discusses how first year Purdue engineering students believe that sending people to Mars might be their generation's greatest technological legacy. Space can still inspire, and the long-run benefits of the original Space Race and of the Apollo program seem indisputable to me, more so in the people and the ventures it inspired than in the specific technologies, though there were many impressive and important "spin-offs."Like many other engineers and scientists of my generation, I was directly inspired by the space program of the 1960's to pursue a technical education and career, though I ended up an optical engineer rather than an aeronautical engineer and astronaut as I had planned in the sixth grade.

Could "energy" be the current or next generation's "Apollo program?" It's important enough, but I'm not so sure. I really think there is something magic about working to get people to another world. I know the Cold War was a big part of the Apollo program, and for Mars I would personally prefer that we do it cooperatively with other nations, not in competition. Maybe that's naive and a deal-breaker, I don't know. But I truly believe that a serious effort to get people to Mars sooner rather than later will reap great benefits in inspiration as well as in technology, jobs, and spin-offs. And who knows, maybe even peace. Yup, naive.

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