By Axel Krause
Paris, October 18, 2016
Anytime in the next few weeks, after several months of streaking through outer space, a state-of-the-art module of the European Space Agency will land on the planet that has captured the imagination and research since ancient times – Mars. Why?
Because, ESA experts say, if life ever existed on the planet in the first billion years following creation of our solar system, this effort, among others, including by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the US, may prove if life did, does or doesn’t, exist there – its distance from earth measuring from between 75 million to 375 million kilometers, depending on the orbits. A manned space journey there would take around an estimated, and very risky, six months or more.
« Primitive life may have gained a foothold when the climate was warmer and wetter more than 3.5 billion years ago, leaving traces of early lifeforms still to be discovered below the surface », according to an ESA report, which notes that a second, cooperative mission planned for launch in 2018 will involve a European rover and a Russian surface science platform– launched on a Russian Proton rocket – with capacity to drill down to two meters below the surface, opening up what it terms « a new era for Europe: moving from remote observation to surface and subsurface exploration of Mars. »
Little known to most Americans, ESA is based in Paris and was created in 1958 as an intergovernmental agency with 22 member-states and an annual budget of some 5.2 billion euros. It also runs unmanned exploration of other planets and the Moon; programs related to earth observation; science and telecommunications; that depends heavily on a major, French-backed spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana from which it launches its relatively successful Ariane series of rockets being expanded.
And ESA has cooperative ventures with both NASA, with a far-larger budget, (of some 17.5 billion dollars) and Russia’s Roscosmos, with a 5.6 billion budget that continues to successfully operate its Soyuz rocket series. From its base in formerly Soviet Central Asia, Soyuz rockets supply the largest artificial body in orbit – manned by astronauts some 400 kilometers from earth – the International Space Station, ISS.
Launched in 1998 as the world’s first venture of its kind, ISS is a five-nation space program led by NASA in cooperation with ESA, Roscomos, Japan’s JAXA, and Canada’s CSA; supplied only by rotating Soyuz rockets as the US space shuttle ended its operations five years ago.
The orbiting ISS that on clear nights can be seen without a telescope, represents the longest, continuous human presence in low Earth orbit (over 15 years) in which up to six crew members from participating states conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology and other fields and for testing spacecraft systems and equipment for possible missions to the Moon and Mars; experiments that have been seen first-hand by visitors from 17 nations, including very-wealthy space tourists, as it orbits some 15 times a day around the earth.
On a visit to the Pyrenees Mountains described in this space late last month, we visited Europe’s fourth-highest, working observatory (2877 meters) located atop the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, where tourists are welcome and can, for 400 euros per night, observe but also hear from an English-speaking guide lots about the ISS and everything else above (much like at a planetarium).
But men and women actually on Mars? Within our lifetime?
Some of us may recall how on October 30,1938, a CBS radio broadcast, narrated by film producer and actor Orson Wells, triggered nationwide panic by a segment in the form of news bulletins which grimly, realistically suggested with sound effects that the nation was being invaded by aliens from Mars; reporting – falsely – that people were diving into the East River in New York « like rats » seeking to escape.
There were no Martians, of course. But the perception that Mars, and other planets even those in faraway galaxies, were somehow reachable with life on them, has continued to fuel our imaginations.
If you haven’t ever seen these films, for example, I recommend them highly to understand: « 2001: A Space Odyssey», the 1968 epic science-fiction film of Stanley Kubrick; the « Star Trek » series produced for TV; and « Interstellar », another more recent full-length feature film by Christopher Nolan, (of Batman fame) about astronauts traveling in space to find a new home to replace the fatally-polluted world.
Strikingly, on September 27 in a speech to the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of the rocket company SpaceX, outlined his vision for a Mars manned landing, quoted by The Economist magazine in its October 1 issue, to « make Mars seem possible – like something we can do in our lifetime. » His goal for coming decades, the article reports, is « to allow people to buy tickets to Mars for something in the region of $200,000…it sounds fantastical. »
The Sunday Times of London recently quoted him as saying jokingly: « If ‘ve got to die somewhere and where better than Mars? Be pretty cool. »
Indeed, though one of his rockets and its high-tech payload blew up accidentally at the Florida Cape Canaveral space complex early last month, neither he nor others planning launching are giving up for, as the Times noted, « SpaceX has « become a prominent private player in a flourishing commercial space industry that recently prompted one senior executive at NASA to declare: ‘this is an amazing period of time in human spaceflight’». »
The Washington Post‘s online edition has a guest piece describing how NASA’s original Mission Control room is now a popular site, and has built a new one that « it hopes will witness the first steps on the Martian surface. And it’s renovating yet another to be used for the International Space Station. »
The New York Times‘ international edition has reported on plans to build and launch a privately financed telescope to seek an Earthlike planet in the Alpha Centauri system, one of our closest cosmic neighbors that one of its nonprofit backers describes as « the holy grail of exoplanet research. » And, on October 13, the paper called attention to President Obama’s strong, continuing support for landing humans on Mars by the 2030s; and that Mr. Musk’s project, he claims, could take « colonists » to Mars, 100 at a time as early as 2024.
For all the heavily-publicized disasters that have « scarred the quest for safe, affordable space travel – not least the crash in 2014 of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic prototype spaceship – an elite group of star struck entrepreneur is continuing to pour billions of pounds into futuristic ventures. They range from tourist suborbital jaunting to long-range interplanetary travel, » the newspaper added. Mr. Musk’s often-stated goal to land on Mars is to make humanity a « multiplanetary species » so that human life could carry on in space if some calamity, such as an asteroid strike, hit the earth.
But not surprisingly, as the Economist warned, even though Mars is the potentially « friendliest » place in the cosmic neighborhood, its average surface temperature is around minus 60°C, and the atmosphere extremely thin. Working with his numbers, sending people to Mars would cost in the order of $200 billion. And while supporters liken a manned Mars project to the scientific colony operating in frigid Antarctica, the Economist rightly concludes that it’s unlikely governments or markets would supply the multi-billion-dollar amounts needed anytime soon.
Nevertheless, NASA is a moving forward with a planned spring launch next year of an unmanned mission to study the deep interior of Mars, one of the agency’s related projects, encouraged by what it said late last month was liquid water, albeit briny, essential for microbial life, flowing on the surface of Mars. And a manned landing in the 2030s.
ESA and NASA executives agreed as Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for NASA’s Mars exploration program reportedly put it: « It’s clear that the Mars of billions of years ago more closely resembled Earth than it does today. Our challenge is to figure out how this more clement Mars was even possible, what happened to that wetter Mars. »
Meantime, SpaceX and Boeing are developing what are referred to as « passenger-capable space capsules » that would fly NASA astronauts to the ISS as early as next year continuing research into manned flight to Mars, possibly to the Moon. And possibly, but not likely, to two other so-called terrestrial planets, Venus and Mercury.
And the rocket company started by Jeffrey Bezos, the billionaire CEO of Amazon, known as Blue Origin, successfully separated a crew capsule from a rocket after it lifted off earlier this month. The company is developing reusable rockets to reduce the cost of reaching space, as Mr. Bezos proclaimed as cited in the International New York Times on October, his goal is for millions of people to eventually live and work in space.
And while not involved in any of the ventures mentioned, China is not absent in the space race. As part of its ambitious space program, The International New York Times reported today that it launched a manned spacecraft from the Gobi Desert on Monday morning. The spacecraft, called Shenzhou-II, is to dock with an orbiting space laboratory, similar to the ISS, launched last month, according to the article, noting that astronauts are expected to stay in the spacelab thirty days before returning to Earth.
What are the risks beyond catastrophic, fatal mechanical failures, we know about and that are being addressed?
There is no denying that the space environment is anything but life-friendly. Consider the following: Unprotected human presence in space is endangered by an intense radiation, high vacuum, extreme temperatures, and microgravity. Medical researchers on ISS and on earth are actively studying the effects of long-term space exposure, such as extended weightlessness, muscle atrophy, bone loss and fluid shift within the body; sources note that there normally is no physician on board the ISS.
A global, cooperative arrangement here is deemed essential by ESA and other leading space organizations, which will require political will; and cooperation with nations we have not mentioned that are also already in, in or getting into the space race, such as China, India, South Korea and Iran. « It won’t be easy, » an ESA executive says, « but no space agency like ours can easily pursue a Mars and others big ventures on its own. Cooperation, as ISIS shows, is the answer. »
—–Axel Krause is the Paris-based contributing editor of TransAtlantic Magazine. And for decades has covered the nations mentioned here ranging from Europe, and the US to Russia and China, for Business Week and the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of Inside the New Europe.