Has NASA lapsed into fantasy? It is my favorite federal agency, but I fear it is hearing little voices.
In Astrobiology Magazine, (astrobio.net) there is an interview with Cassie Conley, NASA's planetary protection officer. Her job is to worry about the possibility of our contamination of other planets with earthly microbes. OK, a Mars lander, such as we have now, might contaminate Mars. I'm not sure why anyone would care. Still, it could happen.
I mean, if there is no life on Mars now (which hasn't been established) so what if it got some? But much of the interview deals with how we would keep a permanent base on Mars from contaminating the planet. What are we talking about? The manned space program is to all appearances dead. Right now we have the space shuttle, an aging system that can't fly very often.
Always there is talk of a follow-on vehicle, which never seems to materialize. Work continues lethargically on the International Space Station, but nobody seems quite sure what it is for. The public has no detectable interest. When did you last see a story about the space station? Were you particularly interested? There is nothing in the inventory and nothing in the pipeline that makes a trip to Mars look possible.
Putting a base on Mars would be expensive beyond imagination, at least short of some revolutionary new form of propulsion. There is no major constituency for going to Mars, whereas there are countless constituencies for spending the money some other way.
Meanwhile, the unmanned program is going great guns.
When people talk about sending humans to Mars, one of the arguments they make is that a geologist or a biologist walking around on Mars could notice all kinds of things that a robot would never discover. I question this. The probes are getting better fast.
When we launch one now, we expect it to work, as distinct from hoping that it might. Decades are going to pass before any serious moves are made to go to Mars, if they are ever made. Meanwhile, the landers are getting better, the resolution of the cameras and the sophistication of the instrumentation. What is a human going to be able to do better in 30 years?
Actually robots are likely to be better visitors than humans. They can undertake dangerous tasks, spend years exploring without needing food and air and, increasingly, carry large instrument payloads. And how much are we willing to pay for slightly more detailed knowledge of what appears to be a fairly boring desert?
The first manned expedition would not establish a permanent base. For a base you would need secure logistics for resupply, the equivalent of an 18-wheeler in space. Otherwise you would get to listen to the crew dying from lack of food, air, or whatever when things don't get there on time. Having spent untold amounts of money, we would have an astronaut walk around a bit, ride a golf cart, take some samples and, with luck, come back alive. For a minuscule fraction of the cost, you could have a lot of highly sophisticated unmanned vehicles that would wander around for years.
And with no risk to life.
NASA has a record of engineering achievement, which is why its probes work. It practices good science. But there is a science-fiction feel to some of its thinking, a desire to send people to far-off places just for the sake of doing it. Economically, it doesn't work. Scientifically, it isn't necessary. Politically, it ain't gonna happen.