A one way trip

I was doing a presentation at a conference recently and mentioned the first Moon landing. I commented that I felt that this was mankind’s most significant technical achievement to date. Then I backtracked and said that actually getting the guys back again was really the big achievement. Hold that thought, as I will come back to it shortly.

Of course, there are many who would cite other examples of achievements that deserve the top slot; for example: the invention of the wheel, a written language, mathematics, the printing press, electronics, radio, the Internet, chocolate. The list is endless. I think it is the pioneering spirit that makes the moon shots so outstanding for me. I am no good at lying on a beach soaking up the sun. I always start to wonder what is around the next headland and, before you know it, I am off. Even though I am nothing like as brave as the astronauts, I think I know here they were coming from.

This opens up lots of thoughts and ideas about space travel …

I have always liked science fiction and space travel is right at the core of the genre. As a kid, I took it for granted that a mission to Mars would occur before I was far into adulthood. I am still waiting. As I learn more about how hard [i.e. complex, expensive and dangerous] it is, I become rather sad, but I know we will get there eventually.

There are many who believe that the moon landings were a hoax, all staged in New Mexico or some other desert. I was pleased to see the images from a recent probe that showed some the detritus left behind from one of the Apollo missions. Unless, of course, the guys controlling that mission were all part of the same conspiracy …

Talking of conspiracies, I wonder how much we really know about the cost of the space race. I do not mean the cost in dollars; I am thinking of the human cost. How many people died as a result of space travel? There was the Soyuz crew who died during re-entry; the Americans who died in a fire on the pad; everyone remembers the two Shuttle disasters. Were there others? I feel bad that I may have forgotten someone. Of course, there were numerous near misses, with the most obvious one being Apollo 13. [I love the movie; I was on the edge of my seat, even though I knew the ending.] I have often wondered whether there was much greater loss of life – perhaps behind the Iron Curtain – in the early days which was hushed up. Although every death is a tragedy, the toll has been amazingly light compared with the losses entailed in exploring the Earth’s surface.

Like going to the Moon, one of the biggest challenges with a trip to Mars is getting back. It would need a very large vehicle to be sent in order to have enough power to overcome the Martian gravitation pull, which, though much less than that of the Earth, is significantly greater than the Moon. It occurred to me that there is a common technique in engineering when the solution to a problem is hard to find: redefine the problem. In this case, I would suggest that the team just focus on getting to Mars and leave it at that. Make it a one way mission.

My first thoughts were that there would be plenty of well qualified people who would volunteer immediately. It would, in effect, be a suicide mission, but plenty of people give up their lives for less worth causes. And, so long as it is truly voluntary, what is wrong with that? I knew, of course, that no government sponsored agency [like NASA] would propose such an escapade. However, a group of scientists did recently suggest something similar. Their idea is for a one way mission, but with a view to growing an increasing presence on the Red Planet. The one way spacecraft would be relatively cheap and the ISS would provide an ideal way station or kick off point. The crew – or should I call them colonists? – would be provided with supplies and equipment to help them exploit the local resources to make a viable ecosystem. Any number of ships could be sent, both manned vehicles and freighters, augmenting the colony over time. Eventually, perhaps a few generations down the line, a return trip might become viable and Earth may finally be visited by Martians.

Any takers?

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2010/12/02/a-one-way-trip/