The title here has been running through my head recently since the media have once again nearly unanimously acted as willing participants in the fraud that is Mars One, after the project – or is it performance art? – announced its third-round culled-down list of 100 candidates, precisely none of whom will go to Mars.
The chief problem with Mars One is that it’s the product of a fantasist without money, without plans, without industry cooperation, and without the sense God gave a goose. As I read between the lines of recent interviews, many of their volunteers appear to me to be lonely souls with little to look forward to in their lives who seem happy to latch onto even the most vaporous of schemes just for the tiny glimmer of hope it gives them, even if death happens to be the end game.
The media’s almost unfailing neutrality in regard to the non-project, in which they basically rewrite press releases – in effect, becoming cheerleaders – is a particularly regrettable example of the creeping hyper-objectivity of news organisations that increasingly concentrate more on page impressions than truth. Too many stories are presented without questioning anything about them, never mind the in-depth critical analysis that some of them cry out for. The continuing rise of one-sided news written by public relations people – not really ‘people’ in the traditional sense, but I use the term for the sake of convenience – is welcomed by news organisations ever tightly focused on the bottom line, because it’s much cheaper to hire kids just out of J-School to rewrite PR hogwash than it is to actually look into things – you know, see if they’re true or whatnot.
So, on to serious projects instead. What about NASA? Orion seems like a good ship so far, but I’ve been ignoring the chorus saying it’s the first step to Mars. It is the first step to getting past the low Earth orbit we’ve been stuck in for forty-three years¹, but no more than that. Development of the Space Launch System (SLS) is underway, but that’s where current plans end. The budget money ends there, too.
Many problems challenging a manned Mars mission, such as too-heavy but essential radiation shielding, a known 1-2% bone density loss per month in microgravity, and the new and worrying possibility of permanent vision impairment or loss, remain insurmountable. They may be resolved in the course of time, but I don’t think this is the decade, and the next one is doubtful, too. Half-century? Maybe. With current capabilities and limitations, humans would first be incapacitated and then almost surely killed along the way to Mars. Those who weren’t by some miracle dead by landing wouldn’t be able to move due to pesky skeletons with the tensile strength of a handful of matchsticks.
“Oh, details, details”, some freer spirits than me will no doubt think as they strive to come up with a pithy one-sentence retort involving the word ‘haters’. And that’s fine; this is just my annoyingly science-based opinion, after all. But what about actual space travellers? How do NASA astronauts – the ones who remain, anyway – feel about Mars? Joyous anticipation? Unconcealed excitement? Not exactly.
Lori Garver, who had advised Obama and then become NASA’s deputy administrator, was visiting Johnson Space Center. After “rah-rah” remarks, Garver polled the roughly four dozen astronauts in attendance where they wanted to go. An asteroid? No hands. Mars? Three hands. The moon? All the rest of the hands.
¹If the Earth were the size of a ping pong ball, the farthest humans have ventured away from it since Apollo 17 in December 1972 would be about 2 millimetres. The Space Shuttle’s operating limit was a bit shy of 400 miles altitude, or about 1/10th the radius of Earth. For terrestrial reference, that’s about the distance from Edinburgh to London or Boston to Washington, DC.