Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Next Frontier

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon's surface in July 1969.

Forty years ago this summer, Buzz Aldrin was part of perhaps the greatest adventure in which any man has participated — Apollo 11's trip to the moon.

In a special commentary for CNN, Aldrin urges mankind to "continue the journey" — not by "rerunning the moon race that we won 40 years ago" but by focusing on "a destination in space that offers great rewards for the risks to achieve it."

And he has a place in mind.

"I believe that destination must be homesteading Mars," Aldrin writes, "the first human colony on another world."

Aldrin says we could start by sending crews to Mars' moons, then we could move on to the planet's surface.

I understand Aldrin's desire to go to Mars — and I understand why he thinks returning to the moon fails to "ignite the imagination of young Americans" the way the space race of the '60s did.

But, before anyone starts packing for a trip to Mars, there are some things that need to be resolved.

It's going to cost a lot of money to send a crew to the "Red Planet." I don't know how much because I'm hardly an authority on space travel, but I know enough to know that the moon was — and still is — in our orbit, which other planets are not. Therefore, the distance to be traveled is greater.

How much greater? Well, I don't know exact distances, but the Apollo 11 crew needed only a few days to fly to the moon, a couple of days for Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to land on the moon and take a few strolls on its surface, then rejoin Michael Collins and spend about three more days returning to earth. The round trip took a little more than a week.

In the late 1990s, it took months for the unmanned mission that took the rover Sojourner to Mars to arrive at its destination so, obviously, a manned trip to Mars is going to require rockets that can carry more of everything — more fuel for the journey, more food for the crew, etc.

And, when they arrive at Mars, the astronauts will find a barren planet — no vegetation, no water, nothing. NASA will need to have worked out all the details in advance because, by the time the astronauts get there, it will be too late for anyone to say, "Oh, darn! We didn't work out what we need to do about ________!" It will be a long trip back to earth to take care of anything that may have been overlooked.

And that leads me to the questions about fuel. We live in a time when greater attention is being given to the finite nature of fossil fuels. What would be the energy source for this rocket's seven– or eight–month journey? How will the weight distribution of the rocket be affected?

And I mentioned the costs before. I was a child in the 1960s and I don't recall hearing any debates about the expense of sending men to the moon. But times were better then, and the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations hadn't committed more than $1 trillion to stimulating a weak economy. For now, I feel the American public is going to be hesitant to invest in anything that can't be counted on to create jobs or contribute in an immediate way to the GDP.

Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of expanding our exploration of space, and I believe Mars could hold some vital information for us. But it's going to require an enormous financial investment to do what Aldrin wants to do, and the American taxpayers will be understandably skittish about making that kind of commitment on the heels of the commitments it has had to make.

There may be plenty of bang to be had for our bucks, but I don't think taxpayers are in the mood for deferred gratification right now, no matter how romantic the notion of going to Mars may be.

What I think is likely to occur is this: The United States government may undertake a study of the possibility of a manned mission to Mars. If it is deemed feasible, NASA will begin work on plans for the right kind of rocket for the job. We're in no space race this time so NASA can take its time and make informed decisions. And, if all goes well, perhaps we would be ready to launch such a mission maybe 10 years from now.

Which means, I believe, that Aldrin, who will be 80 years old in January, probably will not see the first manned mission to Mars.

But I think he would be happy if he sees America make its commitment to the project.

I don't know if that will happen. But, like just about everything else that Americans would like to see accomplished in their lifetimes — a cure for cancer, the development of cheap alternative sources of energy or anything else you can name — it's going to cost a lot of money and it's going to come with no guarantees of success.

Of course, that has been the dilemma facing all explorers throughout the ages. Fortunately, someone or something always has made the difference — sometimes at the last possible moment.

It is part of man's DNA to want to explore, to go where no one has gone before. For a time, colonizing this continent was the next item on the agenda. After colonists arrived here, exploring the rest of the continent was next. Then it was the moon.

Now, Mars is what's next. We'll get there. But we may not get there as quickly as Buzz would like.

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