Thursday, July 25, 2019

My Open Letter to NASA Managers Who Can't Say "Moon" without "Mars" in the Same Sentence: Please stop it.

Dear NASA Managers who can't say "moon" without "Mars in the same sentence:

I love you, I really do but please stop it.

Although you may think that everybody agrees with you that Artemis is just a touch and go on the path to Mars, let me assure you that it isn't with me and many, many others in the space community. We've worked hard for years to get us to the point where maybe we're finally going back to the moon.

We've even got a Vice President who is behind NASA, who wants you to go to the moon and build something permanent there, and who has stuck out his neck for you. For years, lots of us have been working in every way we can - me with my books and my other writings - to get someone in the Executive Branch who is really serious about going back to the moon, not in a sprint with flags and all that but for a purpose that's good enough to keep us there.

But now I fear you're about to totally screw it up mainly because of where your heads are on this moon and Mars thing.

So, with great respect to all of you who toil every day on the pathways to space, let me be clear: Every time you folks at NASA tack "and then we're headed to Mars" onto your comments about going back to the moon, you diminish the moon as a destination whether you realize it or not. As such, you are totally confusing everybody, especially young people. Common sense says you're not going to Mars because you have no orders to go there and the technology not only doesn't exist, there are no plans to make it exist.

So, dear NASA folks, if we're going to get young people excited about space, trust me on this: The moon is exciting enough and I'm going to tell you why.

A lot of you NASA managers think it's just a practice ground but I'm sorry, that's so Old Space. There is the moon and then there is the moon.

The moon I fear you are looking at is the moon of Apollo which was considered a cold, dead, dry, and essentially uninteresting place and therefore that's why the missions were cancelled so you'd better just bounce off it and keep going. The real moon, however, is actually much different than we thought it was fifty years ago.

We have learned so much about the moon since Apollo. The great news is it's wet. It may very well hold signs of life that either had an origin on the moon or, more likely, was sent from Earth during various primordial collisions or came in from outer space aboard comets. This should make the moon fascinating to scientists and philosophers alike.

Consider this: We haven't looked at with a microscope a single drop of water from OFF our world. That's pretty interesting when you consider that we've never looked at a single drop of water from ON our world that wasn't filled with life or evidence of life. Just one drop of moon water - life or no life - is going to tell us an enormous amount on who we are and where we came from and what's likely out there waiting for us.

Besides water and its uses and perhaps evidence of life or past life, the moon is loaded with stuff we can use and I'm sure you know the list. So let's go get it.

Now, let's consider Mars but not the Mars that is the prodigious planet you keep saying you're heading toward. 

The Mars I think you imagine is actually a fantasy, a wonderful fantasy, but still very much one that exists mostly because of the wistful dreams started by Percival Lowell a century ago when he wrote fanciful books about Mars as if they were factual which was picked up by H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs and a thousand other writers since who've filled our heads with unrealistic concepts of what Mars is really like.

NASA, however, must not promote fantasies. It's all right for Elon and others to believe in the fantasy and work toward it - it's their money and their time and otherwise they're doing great work - but you have to take an actual, hardheaded look at the fourth rock out from the sun because you're spending the people's money.

So here we go: Mars is no "fixer upper" as Elon calls it. In fact, Mars is a fearsome place, a dwarf planet, only one third the size of the Earth and but twice the size of our moon.

Mars has no atmosphere to speak of and what it has cannot be breathed. It has virtually no air pressure so it might as well be a vacuum for planning purposes in terms of keeping people alive.

Mars is horrifically cold, averaging 81 degrees below zero, meaning that only a slight failure in an astronaut's suit heating system will cause frostbite perhaps requiring amputation. Look at the climbers of Mount Everest and how they often have to have toes, fingers, and noses cut off to avoid gangrene after being frostbitten in, compared to Mars, relatively benign conditions.

Unless suit technology is revolutionized with some sort of "beyond our present technology" backpack providing heat and air, astronauts on Mars can't just clomp around in thin suits without being susceptible to frostbite due to inevitable heater failures and, without tons of heavy compressors and filters and catalysts to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen to keep their backpack tanks full, they will also quickly experience a thing called asphyxiation which is generally considered a bad thing.

As an aside, in my novel Crater I have people working outside on the moon wearing biolastic suits which are made up of living organisms which provide pressure and warmth and air. These, I have to admit, might be defined as "beyond our present technology."

But back to the real Mars.

Many have pointed out that frostbite and asphyxiation didn't happen on the moon during Apollo. That's true but the astronauts were only there temporarily and quickly headed back to Earth. Your Mars fantasy is to go there and stay for months and possibly years on end without help from anybody. You've got a totally different situation to deal with.

But let's keep going because if Mars was only just cold and possessed of a thin atmosphere, it would be fine for human exploration but there's a bit more and they're the worst.

Mars has no magnetic field like Earth and therefore radiation and cosmic rays cascade down on its surface. The only instrument we've put there to measure it registered so much radiation in a solar flare that it knocked out the instrument but not before it let us know any Earthian mammal would have died.

Mars soil is deadly to Earthian plant-life. Without leaching out the perchlorates and adding massive amounts of water and fertilizer, nothing can be grown in it. This means continuous food supplies have to be sent out over an average of 140,000,000 miles more or less constantly. Are you prepared for that? Did you plan on farming? Astronauts performing stoop labor isn't a likely image even if you carried all that fertilizer and were able to wash the soil with Mars water. Consider what that's going to take. It's a massive undertaking and just to keep a few people fed.

All this means astronauts on Mars will have to live underground or beneath a pile of rubble in some kind of habitats and will require constant supplements from Earth. We decidedly do not know how to build such self-sustained habitats! Only once has it been tried and that was the Biosphere II attempt in Arizona which failed.

And should we solve all that and our astronauts are able to live inside their man-made caves, they will only be able to make brief stints outside in suits while getting irradiated in the process, risking frostbite, and hoping their air holds out and they don't starve or die of thirst. Some fun.

But before even all that, there's the voyage just to get there which is so vast and will take so long, it makes going to the moon seem like a Sunday afternoon drive. Unfortunately, NASA doesn't have anything even on the drawing boards that could remotely carry astronauts to Mars and land them there. Your Orion capsule is woefully inadequate for anything more than a few weeks. Essentially, you've got to build something roomy like the International Space Station and set sail all its massiveness to Mars if you've any hope of keeping a crew healthy and even then, it's going to be touch and go because, you know, people get sick.

Ten months one way (when the planets line up meaning sometimes it'll take considerably longer) through irradiated space in weightless conditions means your astronauts will arrive with decreased muscle mass, brittle bones, damaged eyeballs and perhaps brains and then you expect them to then perform like the Apollo astronauts? Unlikely. It would be like putting 80 year olds atop Mount Everest and telling them to get out and go to work. Unhappily, you're going to need a complete pharmacy and surgery to get anybody that far out, especially using chemical rockets.

So you say you'll just build bigger better rocket engines? Great. Do it. But even thermal nuclear engines would only cut that trip in half and even if it cut it to a third, you don't have such engines and it's going to be awhile to get them and you don't need them for the moon. So where are they in the pipeline? Some of your folks are doing great work on them but realistically, such engines are many years away from flying with humans aboard. You'll need to first test them with robotic spacecraft many times. What are we looking at? Decades? Probably.

And just consider - please - what it would take to design and build all this hardware both as ships and landers and habitats and then build the simulators and train the ground personnel and then keep this huge marching army trained, salaried, and content. Nowhere have I seen the slightest work on your part to identify this horde of people working on the ground you're going to need just so a few astronauts can go to Mars. Maybe Elon can go with a skeleton crew on the ground and risk himself and his employees and volunteers but, dear NASA, you are a federal agency who answers to the people. You've got to go in force with more than a reasonable chance of success with a powerful reason to go in the first place or not go at all. That's just the way it is.

For NASA to send humans to Mars, then, isn't going to be anything like Apollo. It's going to be more like a continuous D-Day and will require an effort that essentially mobilizes the nation but will forever be an economic drain. How long do you think it will be supported?

At some point, when you really sit down and see what it will take to send humans to Mars, you quickly begin to appreciate that NASA could send a thousand, nay ten thousand robots there to roam, dig, root through, drill within, and fly over that planet and see exactly what's there. Also, eventually artificial intelligence, possibly even in the shape of humans if that is desired, make so much more sense as we can crawl inside their heads and see exactly what they see and what they feel without having to deal with the frailties of human beings.

And, as a trainer of many astronauts, I have to tell you that unless our technology changes immensely, you are asking far too much from normal human beings to send them on such missions to Mars with the equipment we can realistically acquire over these next several decades.

So there you have it. Unlike Mars which will be an economic drain where only the bravest, strongest, and mostly single and divorced astronauts can go who are willing to shorten their lives considerably in order to visit a dead little planet, the moon, because it is so near and interesting and filled with resources, can be a place where actual, real, and normal people can go, where minerals are acquired for the Earth that will supplement our economy, and where people can work and make some money and create a space economy. And lots of fantastic science can be done, too.

So here's what I believe and think you should, too: NASA's job right at this moment is to put an anchor down on the moon that will allow everyone, private or governmental, to follow by using it as a safe haven before heading out to the Lunar Outback to prospect. To do that, you're looking at decades of work - good wonderful work - that will see plumbers, miners, electricians, construction workers, and so forth actually living on the moon. Isn't that enough? I think so.

In summary, dear NASA managers, the moon is NOT a practice area. It is our eighth continent and I believe you have the responsibility to get us back there and set up shop so the rest of us can follow. Now, let's get going and, for goodness sake, unless you're talking about robotic missions, please stop talking about Mars!

All the best,


PS - Once our moon-Earth economy is up and running, and we find the right planet around the right star... well, I'll be there for you. That will be a worthy objective. Let's do it. Let's go.