McCain on Mars

McCain on Mars

McCain on Mars

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 10 2008 6:09 PM

McCain on Mars

I am no fan of John McCain's, obviously (though we do have some common ground). So when he talks about space, I get email. This time, McCain has come out in support of a manned mission to Mars:

McCain, who spoke at the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors/Florida Press Association convention, also supports for human missions to Mars.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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"I am intrigued by a man on Mars and I think that it would excite the imagination of the American people if we can say, 'Hey, here's what it looks like. We know that now, and here's what may be there and let's all join in that project.'"

I have been clear on this blog and elsewhere that currently, I am against NASA focusing on a manned Mars mission. Right now, NASA does not have the wherewithall, the focus, the funds, or the political clout it needs to accomplish this goal. Plus, it will be decades before we could do something like that.

Instead, it's my opinion that NASA needs a more achievable shorter-term goal: getting back to the Moon and establishing a colony there. This is no easy task, and will take a lot of money, time, and brain power to make happen. Yet, it's far easier, cheaper, and achievable than going to Mars. Many of the technological issues are the same, and the Moon is a lot closer and easier to reach. What's learned from building and sustaining a lunar base can be applied to a mission to Mars, so that when we are ready we can do it right.

I think if we try to go to Mars now, NASA will be drained entirely of money for other projects (that too may happen witha return to the Moon, but hopefully not as much or for as long). Also, I fear that any Mars mission done in the next decade or two will be another "flags-and-footprints" mission, where we go, plant a flag, and come back. And that's it.

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We don't need to do something just to do it. We need a mission that has long-term goals, to return humans to space and keep them there.

That cannot be done with a Presidential candidate's throwaway line, and cannot be done with a short-sighted Congress, used to thinking that the political world ends at the end of a term.

We are currently exploring Mars robotically, which is fantastic... and it's helping teach us how to get there (which is hard). We can keep doing this for a while, I think, before we send people. Also, there are other goals besides the Moon: the Orion rockets can take us to a near-Earth asteroid, which has incredible benefits to go with it as well. There is much to do and learn before we close the hatch on astronauts for their six-month journey to Mars. We need to keep Mars in mind as we go back to the Moon and explore other avenues, knowing that someday we'll head there. We can do it, and I think strongly we should and will do it, but making that NASA's focus now is a huge mistake.

I'll add that McCain said he would extend the Shuttle's life to fill the gap between the end of the Shuttle's reign (2010) and the time we get the Orion rockets online (2015, though don't bet that deadline will stay firm). I don't know how I feel about that; the Shuttle is aging and IMO increasingly unreliable, but I hate having a five year (or more) gap where we rely on other countries to get people into space. Civilian space companies are on their way, but I'm not sure it'll be soon enough... I'll have a little bit more to say about that later.

And I am for putting people into space. You'll find I've written about this quite a bit. But if we do it, we need to do it the right way: with our vision firmly in the future, with our goals firmly delineated, and the funding firmly in place.