Byline: Martin Rees
NASA's Curiosity and the search for alien life.
Charles Bolden, NASA's administrator, asserted that the robotic vehicle Curiosity will "blaze a trail for human footprints on Mars." He could be right. But there is a gulf between what's technically feasible and what is actually achieved. Neil Armstrong made his "one small step" on the moon in 1969, only 12 years after Sputnik 1. Had the pace been sustained over the subsequent 40 years, there would be footprints on Mars already. But after the U.S. had beaten the Russians in the moon race, there was no motive to sustain such a huge expenditure.
Perhaps the Chinese will prioritize a "space spectacular." If so, they will surely set their sights on Mars. After all, a return to the moon, 50 years behind the U.S., would not proclaim parity in the superpower stakes.
But would humans on Mars serve a purpose beyond mere prestige? There's no denying that an observant geologist might make startling discoveries that Curiosity would overlook. But the current cost gap between manned and unmanned missions is huge. This is partly because public and political opinion imposes a demanding "safety culture" on NASA. The space shuttle failed twice in 135 launches. Astronauts or test pilots would willingly accept this risk level. But the shuttle had been promoted as a safe vehicle for civilians. So each failure caused a national trauma and was followed by a hiatus, while costly efforts were made (with very limited effect) to reduce the risk still further.
The future of manned spaceflight lies with privately funded adventurers. The SpaceX company, led by entrepreneur Elon Musk, has successfully docked a payload with the space station and returned to Earth. The involvement of Musk, and others in the high-tech community with credibility and resources, is surely a positive step. Maybe within a decade the really wealthy will be able to sign up for a weeklong trip around the far side of the moon--voyaging farther from Earth than anyone has been before (but avoiding the greater challenge of a moon landing and blastoff).
Still, the phrase "space tourism" should be avoided. It lulls people into believing that such ventures are routine and low risk. And if that's the perception, the inevitable accidents will be as traumatic as those of the space shuttle.
Manned missions to Mars will be viable only if they are cut-price ventures with travelers accepting high risks--perhaps …