The Space Review: Making progress, and seeking stability, with SLS and Orion. It is encouraging that these projects are making progress. It has been far too long since NASA had a rocket with the thrust to launch a spacecraft out of earth orbit. Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out in an essay that while the Wright Brothers plane and Model T car seem quaint because of subsequent technological advances, the Saturn V rocket (which launched the Apollo missions), one of which is lying on the lawn at Keennedy a Space Center, still seems impressive. What a great disappointment it is that that first has become last four decades now. Progress is long overdue.
The blueprint of that progress is to build Orion, practice on an asteroid, skip the Moon, and eventually go to Mars. The reason that President Obama made this so was probably because of the budget: cut out Moon missions to save money and aim toward Mars to keep the spirit alive. Otherwise the plan does nor make sense. Hopefully, economic progress will enable the President to change the plan back to making trips to the moon first.
While the Orion spacecraft is perfect for a moon mission, it’s too small to go to Mars. A trip to the Red Plant would take nine months. If something went wrong, an Apollo 13-style rescue would scarcely be possible. The astronauts in that mission were saved because it took them only two days to get home. A Mars mission would clearly need much more supplies than a moon mission and numerous redundancies.
Furthermore, radiation would be a huge problem on a trip to Mars. A recent study showed the radiation encountered on such a voyage, when the crew would obviously lack the protection of Earth’s ozone layer and magnetic field, would cause the onset of detention. Since Mars has a weak magnetic field, which may be the reason it’s atmosphere has thinned drastically, the radiation exposure would continue.
Moon missions would be a more logical start. The Moon is much more like Mars than any asteroid. The gravity is more similar. A base on the moon would be useful for research and would be permanent, unlike orbiting space stations. It would be an easier place to work than zero gravity. The moon is a particularly good place for a telescope. A base or any action would rekindle public interest and would be a good place to develop habitats for a Mars mission.
In short, we should aim for the moon and travel to Mars when we have ironed out the problem. We need space missions they fuel the imagination. It is probably no coincidence that the span of the crewed space missions through Apollo (1961-1972) nearly matches the span of the “sixties'” movement (1960-1973). Space inspires progressive and makes people receptive to change. Progressive activists, after all, are explorers. Like astronaut George Taylor in “The Planet of the Apes” they are seeking something better.
Update: the latest launch of astronauts to the Interational Space Station will take place in 5 minutes in Khazakhstan. It can be seen on Space.com and NASA.gov.