September 16, 2003

Pushing the envelope

I've liked Gregg Easterbrook's writings for some time, and I've been enjoying his new, unnamed blog on The New Republic site. So I was not particularly surprised when I read this paragraph, at the end of an entry on the Biosphere:

It seems certain that as the space shuttle debate continues, some prominent person will advocate the bold new adventure of a trip to Mars. When someone advocates that, this blog will demolish the idea in detail. Here's a quick preview. Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a letter to the editor blithely asserting that colonization of Mars could be accomplished "easily and cheaply." The Russian rocket manufacturer Energia recently estimated that the hardware for a stripped-down manned mission to Mars would weigh a minimum of 600 tons in low-earth orbit. At current space shuttle prices, it costs $15 billion to place 600 tons in low-earth orbit. That's just the initial launch cost for a stripped-down high-risk flight with a couple of people--spaceship and supplies are extra.

Not surprised, but disappointed nonetheless. First, I think one is always on the losing side of the ledger when betting against human ingenuity, although it's a bet many otherwise perfectly sensible people make. In 1899 (that's not a typo -- 1899), the head of the U.S. Patent Office, one Charles Duell, confidently asserted that,

Everything that can be invented has been invented.

In 1920, no less then the New York Times editorialized that Robert Goddard, the American father of rocketry, knew less about physics than the average high school student. There are, of course, many other examples of this kind of certainty.

I think it's largely a question of will and priorities. We went from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to the moon to the Shuttle in a span of two decades, and all those craft were designed in the age before laptop computers.

Which brings me to the reasons to do it: going to Mars is essentially a technological problem, and anything that advances our technical capabilities is an unqualified benefit. The sheer difficulty of the endeavor would require -- just as it did in the Apollo program -- the development of materials and techniques that at present are in their infancy or as yet unimagined. No to mention, of course, the jobs that should an effort would create.

I also found this commentary, on developing a vision for NASA, worth reading.

Addendum: In fairness to Easterbrook, there's nothing he says that's quite like Duell's statement or the idiocy of the Times' attack on Goddard. But his assumptions seem to flow from the notion that the only way to get to Mars is with a rocket, and that the only way to get it into space is with the space shuttle. I'd argue for a replacement for the Shuttle, and a parallel effort to develop a craft that can go from earth's orbit to Mars.

Posted by Ideofact at September 16, 2003 11:55 PM

Why Mars? Its just another gravity well. To paraphrase Heinlein; Once you reach high orbit you are halfway there. Halfway where? Anywhere.

And check this out.

Posted by: Harry Tuttle at September 17, 2003 01:02 PM

There are a bunch of easy answers to the Mars questions, such as looking for life we know about, going near, practicing landing on another planet, making use of what we have near us, and so on.

I happen to greatly like Gregg Easterbook's writings, as a whole, to, but the space program is a spot where he is totally, completely, repetitively, blind. Alas.

Posted by: Gary Farber at September 21, 2003 06:36 AM