Sunday, 28 October 2012

Dark They Will Be, And Golden-Eyed

I've just finished watching a documentary called The Mars Underground on Youtube. If you have an hour and a quarter and are interested in space exploration, it is worth a view.

Much of the documentary contrasts a thirty-year stagnation in NASA's exploration of space with the determination of aerospace engineers who want to get people onto Mars. Representing them is Robert Zubrin, who created a concept called Mars Direct in 1990, while working at Martin Marietta. It evolved into variants over the years, notably a NASA revision called the Design Reference Mission. Version 5.0 of that was completed on 1 Sept. 2012.

Zubrin suggests that NASA suffers from having no grand Presidential imperative, like the challenge (and deadline!) to get people to the moon, which President Kennedy gave it in 1961. Without such an outside push, NASA cannot overcome the resistance of some administrators and research teams that see Mars Direct as a threat to their relevance and funding. For example, Mars Direct has no use for the International Space Station, which makes the prestige and funding of the Space Station project feel less secure. It uses currently-available rocket technology, which makes several research projects on advanced propulsion methods unnecessary.

If NASA has become conflicted in its desire for human exploration of other worlds, then the way forward is to develop capabilities outside NASA's walls. That way, the next time that a president decides to order a mission to Mars and Congress decides to fund it, much of the technology (from rockets to capsules to inflatable modules for extra room) will have been fully developed, tested, mass-produced, and ready for sale.

Indeed, the progressive elements in NASA, the White House, and the U.S. Congress seem to have realized this when they funded commercial space companies such as SpaceX through the COTS, CRS, and CCDev programs. These are meant to develop and use commercial services to move supplies and people to and from the International Space Station. The third phase of CCDev, now called "Commercial Crew Integrated Capability" (CCiCap) is to have the selected companies produce "complete end-to-end design, including spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services, ground and mission operations and recovery." (According to Wikipedia).

Once such equipment is designed and built, it is, of course, available to other customers, and becomes more independent of political whims than NASA is. For example, (again from Wikipedia), SpaceX has already been hired by
private sector companies, non-American government agencies and the American military for its launch services. It has already launched, for a paying customer, a low earth orbiting satellite with its Falcon 1 booster in 2009. The company plans to launch its first commercial geostationary satellite in 2013 from a Falcon 9.
It is also developing a larger rocket for commercial use called the Falcon Heavy. (More here). Its first customer will be Intelsat.

However, SpaceX has proposed that NASA use the Falcon Heavy rocket and Dragon capsule to send an unmanned mission to Mars to look for signs of life. The proposal, called Red Dragon, is being studied by NASA now. "The mission cost is projected to be less than US$400 million, plus $150 million to $190 million for a launch vehicle and lander" In contrast to this $590-million budget, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project, which put the Curiosity Rover on Mars, cost about US$2.5 billion. The Red Dragon project, if funding is granted in 2012/13, could be launched in 2018.

SpaceX is building its rockets and capsules so that they can be certified for human use. Therefore, Red Dragon would test the same equipment that could put some version of Mars Direct into effect. In fact, the CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, has said that he wants to land humans on Mars in 12 to 15 years (2024 to 2027). This would beat NASA to the red planet by a number of years, as it is currently planning to land sometime in the 2030's.

There is, besides technology and funding, another potential point of failure for a 2½-year mission to Mars, and that is people. The ability of a small number of people to live together peaceably and to stay sane, particularly over the six-month trips to and from Earth, is untested. Not everyone could manage, and we might not know which people could until we try. This problem was discussed in the beginning of Robert Heinlein's book Stranger in a Strange Land, and it is worth looking at that passage again.
But the physical danger was judged to be less important than the psychological stresses. Eight humans, crowded together like monkeys for almost three Terran years, had better get along much better than humans usually did. An all-male crew had been vetoed as unhealthy and socially unstable from lessons learned earlier. A ship's company of four married couples had been decided on as optimum, if the necessary specialties could be found in such a combination.
The University of Edinburgh, prime contractor, sub-contracted crew selection to the Institute for Social Studies. After discarding the chaff of volunteers useless through age, health, mentality, training, or temperament, the Institute still had over nine thousand candidates to work from, each sound in mind and body and having at least one of the necessary special skills. It was expected that the Institute would report several acceptable four-couple crews.
No such crew was found. The major skills needed were astrogator, medical doctor, cook, machinist, ship's commander, semantician, chemical engineer, electronics engineer, physicist, geologist, biochemist, biologist, atomics engineer, photographer, hydroponicist, rocket engineer. Each crew member would have to possess more than one skill, or be able to acquire extra skills in time. There were hundreds of possible combinations of eight people possessing these skills; there turned up three combinations of four married couples possessing them, plus health and intelligence, but in all three cases the group-dynamicists who evaluated the temperament factors for compatibility threw up their hands in horror.
The prime contractor suggested lowering the compatibility figure of merit; the Institute stiffly offered to return its one dollar fee. In the meantime a computer programmer whose name was not recorded had the machines hunt for three-couple rump crews. She found several dozen compatible combinations, each of which defined by its own characteristics the couple needed to complete it. In the meantime the machines continued to review the data changing through deaths, withdrawals, new volunteers, etc.
Captain Michael Brunt, M.S., Cmdr. D. F. Reserve, pilot (unlimited license), and veteran at thirty of the Moon run, seems to have had an inside track at the Institute, someone who was willing to look up for him the names of single female volunteers who might (with him) complete a crew, and then pair his name with these to run trial problems through the machines to determine whether or not a possible combination would be acceptable. This would account for his action in jetting to Australia and proposing marriage to Doctor Winifred Coburn, a horse-faced spinster semantician nine years his senior. The Carlsbad Archives pictured her with an expression of quiet good humor but otherwise lacking in attractiveness.
Or Brant may have acted without inside information, solely through that trait of intuitive audacity necessary to command an exploration. In any case lights blinked, punched cards popped out, and a crew for the Envoy had been found:
Captain Michael Brant, commanding-pilot, astrogator, relief cook, relief photographer, rocketry engineer;
Dr. Winifred Coburn Brant, forty-one, semantician, practical nurse, stores officer, historian;

Mr. Francis X. Seeney, twenty-eight, executive officer, second pilot, astrogator, astrophysicist, photographer;

Dr. Olga Kovalic Seeney, twenty-nine, cook, biochemist, hydroponicist;
Dr. Ward Smith, forty-five, physician and surgeon, biologist;

Dr. Mary Jane Lyle Smith, twenty-six, atomics engineer, electronics and power technician;

Mr. Sergei Rimsky, thirty-five, electronics engineer, chemical engineer, practical machinist & instrumentation man, cryologist;

Mrs. Eleanora Alvarez Rimsky, thirty-two, geologist and selenologist, hydroponicist.

The crew had a well-rounded group of skills, although in some cases their secondary skills had been acquired by intensive coaching during the last weeks before blast-off. More important, they were mutually compatible in their temperaments.
What could go wrong? The expedition was eventually marred by infidelity, followed by pregnancy, followed by death in childbirth, followed by a murder and subsequent suicide. The result was that the newborn child was "as real as taxes but he was a race of one."

(Note: the quotations from Stranger are from the uncut version that was published in 1991 and not the much shorter version that was published thirty years earlier).

Fortunately, many of NASA's scientists have been fans of Heinlein since childhood and will remember this cautionary tale as they make their plans.


For anyone wondering, the title of this post is a variation on "Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed," one of the late Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles" stories. It was in an anthology of stories that we had in school. The title always intrigued me. The story itself made me shudder.

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