Sundin column: The folly of manned space travel


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration seems to be obsessed with the idea of manned space travel, starting with sending humans to Mars. Does it make any sense to pour billions of dollars into this effort, and what will it really accomplish other than proving that we can do it?

It is pretty obvious that there are multiple problems to be solved before we can transport anyone both ways across the 50 million miles between Earth and Mars when their orbits bring them closest together. Estimates of the cost of the Mars mission range from a ridiculously low $6 billion to $500 billion, and it is projected to take 40 years to accomplish.

By comparison, in 1980 the International Space Station was estimated to cost $10 billion and take 10 years to complete. It ended up costing 10 times that amount and took 30 years to complete, which makes $500 billion look more realistic for the Mars mission. The biggest challenge is created by the length of time — up to a year — it will take to complete the mission, and the need to provide life support for the crew for that length of time. There are also the psychological effects of isolation and long-duration living in close quarters, plus the effect of cosmic radiation on the human heart.

Astronauts who have ventured into space have been five times as likely to die from heart failure as those who have not, and their exposure time was only a few days or weeks — not months.

Another issue is why not continue with unmanned missions that have been increasingly successful in providing information on Mars and produced the spectacular results of the New Horizons Mission to Pluto? By not having to make provisions for a crew and its return to Earth, unmanned missions can be smaller and lighter (requiring less fuel) and cheaper. The costs of unmanned Mars missions have been from $1 billion to $2.5 billion, and the Pluto mission cost less than $1 billion.

Advances in technology are coming so rapidly that humans encumbered in spacesuits will not be able to do what can better be done robotically. Humans will have become obsolete for space exploration well before a manned mission to Mars will be ready to launch.

The reason offered to justify a manned mission to Mars is that it is the first step in a search for another potentially habitable planet around a nearby star where humanity could survive when conditions on Earth deteriorate to a point that we will no longer be able to survive here. What could be more preposterous?

First, the distance makes it impossible. Our nearest star, 4.3 light years from Earth, has just been discovered to have an Earth-size planet. The highest rocket velocity we have been able to achieve is 0.05 percent of the speed of light, so it would take over 800 years to travel that distance. Next, if our goal is to try to relocate the human race, there is no way we could possibly send the number of people necessary for it to succeed.

Finally, even if it were possible for humans to reach some distant planet, how could they survive? Would the planet have an atmosphere that would support life? Would it have fertile soil and readily available water to raise food crops? (Mars does not.) What would feed the pioneers until crops matured? Would there be the resources and energy supplies needed to support life, and how would the pioneers find them, process them and manufacture what they would need to support anything above a caveman existence?

All of this prompts the question, why should we spend hundreds of billons of dollars on something that has no realistic future? The answer, my friends, is money. The Aerospace Industries Association, supported by more than 300 corporations including Boeing, Curtiss-Wright, DuPont, General Dynamics, General Electric, Honeywell, IBM, Lockheed-Martin and Northrop-Grumman, is busy lobbying Congress (you know what that means) to keep billions of our tax dollars flowing to them through NASA. That money would be better spent on efforts to preserve the livability of our own planet, including safeguarding our environment and developing alternative sources of energy.

NASA’s mission should be shifted from manned space flight to searching for and protecting our planet from “Near-Earth objects” — asteroids which might someday be on a collision course with Earth, resulting in massive extinctions, including our own.

Hal Sundin’s As I See It column appears on the first Thursday of each month.

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