Six weeks ago NASA concluded its final shuttle mission, STS-135. At the time, I found myself rather conflicted about the whole thing. Space and all the things that go along with that — rockets, exploration, astronauts, the planets, moons and asteroids — have fascinated me from an early age. (That and dinosaurs, of course, but near anyone knows, there are no dinosaurs in space.) So to see NASA give up the last remnant of human spaceflight was saddening. No more rocket launches.
And yet, I’ve grown increasingly critical of the shuttle program since the Challenger explosion in 1986. I never quite understood why we were investing so much time, money and effort into a program that was I believed was essentially a pick-up truck to low-earth orbit. Of all the places we could possibly go in the solar system, low-earth orbit has got to be one of the most boring. I now count going back to the moon to be a close second place. — At least from LEO, you’re halfway to a huge number of very interesting places. I think of LEO as something like the St. Louis, Missouri of the high frontier. It may not be particularly interesting or exciting in its own right, but you do have to go through it if you’re headed out to the territories. And the territories are exciting.
So I tend to view the Space Shuttle program as a very expensive, somewhat unreliable ride to St. Louis in a pick-up truck. I can think of far more exciting trip to take.
The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must is a detailed examination of manned space exploration of Mars by Robert Zubrin. It was first published in 1996. Now, fifteen years, three presidents, and a number of successful robotic exploratory missions later we have a wealth of additional information about the viability (both technical and political) of a manned mission to Mars and Zubrin has updated and republished his book with those additions. The book details Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan for manned exploration of Mars. The plan utilizes existing technology currently ready-at-hand for a budget a fraction of original NASA proposals for the first human landing on Mars. The plan focuses on keeping costs down by making use of proven automated systems, and chemical processes via in-situ resource utilization.
Like Buzz Aldrin, I am critical of NASA’s goal of sending astronauts back to the moon. Aldrin said it was “more like reaching for past glory than striving for new triumphs” and has advocated for his own Mars to Stay program of human space exploration.
So it is now, that the albatross of the Shuttle program is off our neck that I hope we may be able to refocus human space exploration onto a goal that is challenging, rewarding and ultimately possible. Let’s go to Mars!