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Destination: Mars--This time, a reason for optimism.
TCS ^ | 01/22/2003 | Glenn Harlan Reynolds

Posted on 01/22/2003 5:26:59 AM PST by SJackson

NASA

Recent reports from the Los Angeles Times and Space.com indicate that President Bush may announce a spectacular new Mars initiative, aimed at putting humans on Mars by 2010. Having been through this with a previous President Bush, who announced similar plans only to see them shot down, interestingly enough, by the maneuverings of NASA bureaucrats, I confess to a bit of skepticism. But there's reason to think that this time it could work.

One reason for optimism is that this time around cost, and technology, have gotten a lot more thought. Nuclear propulsion is at the forefront this time - back then, it was a political non-starter. It's possible to go to Mars using chemical rockets alone, but just barely. Using nuclear space propulsion - where a reactor heats gases to form high-speed exhaust rather than using chemical explosions to do so - cuts travel times from six months to two, and, because of better specific impulse (efficiency), allows for higher payloads. (There are no plans, as far as I know, to use Orion-style nuclear-explosive propulsion, of the sort I've written about href=http://techcentralstation.com/1051/defensewrapper.jsp?PID=1051-350&CID=1051-091102C>here, and here. Should I turn out to be wrong about this, it will probably be a sign that somebody somewhere is very worried about something.)

The United States experimented with nuclear propulsion as part of the Kiwi and Nerva projects in the 1960s and early 1970s. The results were extraordinarily promising, but the projects died because, with the United States already abandoning the Moon and giving up on Mars, there was no plausible application for the technology. Nuclear propulsion is mostly useful beyond low-earth orbit, and we were in the process of abandoning everything beyond low-earth orbit.

That appears to be changing, and it's a good thing. It has certainly won praise from the Mars Society, whose President, Robert Zubrin, calls the Bush decision a "tremendously positive step. It will greatly enhance the prospects for human exploration and settlement of the Solar System." He's right about that, and like him, I think that the "settlement" part is as important as the "exploration" part. And while exploration is possible based on chemical rockets alone, settlement without using nuclear power will be much more difficult.

Of course, as this article by Ken Silber notes, nuclear space propulsion has had its critics and opponents for years, though weirdly their opposition stems largely from fears that it will lead to "nuclear powered space battle stations." This isn't quite as weird as Rep. Dennis Kucinich's legislation to ban satellite-based "mind control devices," but it seems pretty far down the list of things we should be concerned about. With worries about earthbound nuclear weapons in the hands of Iraq, North Korea, and perhaps assorted terrorist groups, it's hard to take seriously claims that possible American military activity in space, spun off from civilian Mars missions, might be our biggest problem. Indeed, the whole concern about "space battle stations" has a faintly musty air about it, redolent of circa-1984 "nuclear freeze" propaganda. Who would we fight in space today? Aliens? And if we needed to do that, wouldn't nuclear-powered space battle stations be a good thing?

Nor are environmental concerns significant. Space nuclear reactors would be launched in a "cold" (and thus safe) state, and not powered up until they were safely in orbit. And again, compared with the environmental threat caused by rogue nuclear weapons, their dangers seem minuscule.

We also have to weigh the dangers of not acting. Earth, as we have seen, is an increasingly dangerous place. Some years ago I attended a small workshop on high-technology terrorism, focusing on such future threats as bioterror, abuse of nanotechnology, and so on. As we left the room after one session, another participant remarked "I think I just became a fan of space colonies."

She was right. Many of the threats posed by advanced technologies are, for the most part, manageable. But in the aggregate, they are significant. And the increasingly small Earth is, as I have written here before, too tiny and too fragile a basket for all our humanity's eggs.

The administration's Mars proposal is at least a step in the right direction, and its adoption of nuclear space propulsion indicates more realism than the flags-and-footprints approach favored by the previous Bush administrations. What's more, the use of nuclear propulsion, which makes interplanetary travel both cheaper and faster, greatly increases the likelihood of going beyond flags and footprints to true space settlement. It's about time.


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Government
KEYWORDS: space
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1 posted on 01/22/2003 5:26:59 AM PST by SJackson
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To: SJackson
I pray that this is true! GO W!
2 posted on 01/22/2003 5:34:12 AM PST by Constantine XIII
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To: Brett66; SJackson
Ping for your space list.

There has been a great deal of buzz about nuclear propulsion and a Mars mission here at the Johnson Space Center. I'll take this a good sign that the administration is serious about this.
3 posted on 01/22/2003 5:36:18 AM PST by The_Victor
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To: Constantine XIII
The need for nuclear propulsion on this mission means that this trip could not possibly be launched by NASA. In the long run, this will be a good thing. Imagine what the settling of the West would have looked like if it had been entirely a government operation.
4 posted on 01/22/2003 5:37:31 AM PST by BlazingArizona
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To: SJackson
Call me nuts but I strongly support such a project.

We've got to get off this rock and expand our horizons.
5 posted on 01/22/2003 5:37:38 AM PST by DB ()
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To: SJackson
This is good news. It is humanity's destiny to control the stars and this is the first step.
6 posted on 01/22/2003 5:38:47 AM PST by Sparta (Statism is a mental illness)
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To: Constantine XIII
Oh please God don't let it be a multi-national project!

Let's do ourselves!
7 posted on 01/22/2003 5:40:12 AM PST by DB ()
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To: DB
Where did the "it" go...
8 posted on 01/22/2003 5:41:06 AM PST by DB ()
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To: SJackson
It seems that W is a futurist. He sees things in the long term of things. Not the short term of things. I'm glad I voted for him!
9 posted on 01/22/2003 5:41:18 AM PST by KevinDavis (Marsward Ho!)
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To: SJackson
What folks don't seem to understand is that human beings carry sin with us wherever we go - onto the internet, which initially was a neutral environment, and now is permeated with porn and other crap, as well as constantly being overrun by some new "virus" - and to Mars, where future colonies would only reflect the character of the founders - namely, human beings. Only with God are new creations possible that won't be overcome by sin.

But it's a cool idea anyway. As a kid I read Ray Bradbury voraciously, and have always believed we'd go to Mars someday.

10 posted on 01/22/2003 5:43:07 AM PST by ncpastor (secret agent against the gates of hell)
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To: SJackson

It's possible to go to Mars using chemical rockets alone, but just barely.

Not true. A manned mission to Mars using chemical rockets is very possible and always has been. What has been lacking is the political will to do so.

11 posted on 01/22/2003 5:47:01 AM PST by Burkeman1
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To: DB
Let's do ourselves!

Careful...
You'll go blind. :)

12 posted on 01/22/2003 5:53:56 AM PST by The_Victor
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To: SJackson
Orion. A big(!), thick, hemisphere with a battleship on top. Light off a nuclear bomb underneath, and, voila!

Now THAT would be something to watch as it launched!
13 posted on 01/22/2003 5:56:15 AM PST by Mr. Thorne (...who has read too many Niven and Pournelle novels.)
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To: DB

Oh please God don't let it be a multi-national project!

Let's do ourselves!

I suppose we can take the Brits and Japanese along...

14 posted on 01/22/2003 5:57:26 AM PST by Chemist_Geek ("Drill, R&D, and conserve" should be our watchwords! Energy independence for America!)
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To: Chemist_Geek
Rock Hudson's already been there.
15 posted on 01/22/2003 6:02:23 AM PST by Eric in the Ozarks
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To: SJackson
Mars and lunar colonization BUMP!!
16 posted on 01/22/2003 6:03:21 AM PST by aruanan
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To: SJackson
The future of mankind is in space. It is the nature of man to always venture past the horizon. And while the EnviroNasis want to take us back to the stone age, The Prez wants to take us into the future.

I can envision new nations being founded among our Solar planets. Who will be the founding fathers of those, I wonder?
17 posted on 01/22/2003 6:04:44 AM PST by Search4Truth (The future is out there.)
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To: Sparta
Beginning space colonization could rejuvenate American civilization... the thing is it won't be able to act as a safety valve( the way the Old West was) for that many people, as a martian colony (when in probably 30 or 40 years we get the technology to support one as of now the logistics just aren't possible, hydroponics and some ability to generate oxygen could make such a colony self succficient) will not be able to support a large mass of people not initially anyway. Most likely Mars would be used as a base of operations for mining the Asteroid belt. I reccomend we tackle the moon 1st and work to develop the neccasary science and technology in lightsails, artificial gravity( probably the most difficult as the science is not well understood), robotic probes, terraforming etc. Then expand outward through the solar system.
18 posted on 01/22/2003 6:05:09 AM PST by weikel
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To: SJackson
The meek shall inherit the Earth. The stars belong to the bold.
19 posted on 01/22/2003 6:05:53 AM PST by Junior (Insert tag here =>)
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To: SJackson
The administration's Mars proposal is at least a step in the right direction, and its adoption of nuclear space propulsion indicates more realism than the flags-and-footprints approach favored by the previous Bush administrations.

First, I'm aware of only ONE "previous Bush administration" (from 1989-1993). Second, it's simply not true that G.H.W. Bush favored a "flags and footprints" approach. One of the things that killed SEI (his Moon-Mars Initiative) was that it intended to do precisely what this guy wanted -- make nuclear rocket engines and establish permanent footholds on both the Moon and Mars. That's why the Democrat Congress killed it.

20 posted on 01/22/2003 6:10:39 AM PST by Cincinatus
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