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Mon February 21, 2011
Trailblazing Mars: NASA'S Next Giant Leap
His new book, "Trailblazing Mars," is a combination of history and prognostication. Duggins recounts our longtime powerful interest in the red planet, beginning with fictional treatments by writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury, gives a sketch of the history of scientific ventures in that direction, and then writes about the different theories on how we might explore Mars, if indeed we decide to go forward with that very controversial, exciting, dangerous and expensive project.
By Don Noble
Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio
Pat Duggins is familiar to Alabamians today as the news director of Alabama Public Radio, but for more than 20 years Duggins was at Orlando Public Radio covering Cape Canaveral, NASA and the American space program for Orlando and for National Public Radio.
His coverage was of space shuttle liftoffs, more than one hundred, and NASA catastrophes. Duggins' first book was a kind of summary, one might almost say a requiem, "Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program." A reader of this book should have some small interest in the space program, but no advanced scientific training is required. Duggins has for years been explaining launches and space vehicles to the common listener/reader.
His new book, "Trailblazing Mars," is a combination of history and prognostication.
Duggins recounts our longtime powerful interest in the red planet, beginning with fictional treatments by writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury, gives a sketch of the history of scientific ventures in that direction, and then writes about the different theories on how we might explore Mars, if indeed we decide to go forward with that very controversial, exciting, dangerous and expensive project.
President John F. Kennedy famously challenged NASA to land a man on the moon and return him safely. Today the debate is over whether we can do the same on Mars, and whether we ought to.
There are issues.
For example, the so-called canals on Mars have made Earthlings think there is, or at least was, life on Mars. The idea of "life" for the general public and therefore for politicians is, relatively speaking, sexy. It didn't hurt that the enormously popular scientist Carl Sagan was pushing this line of inquiry.
It is possible that funding for the Mars Viking project, over one billion dollars, would not have been forthcoming had the primary search not been for signs of life. But, Duggins reminds his readers, "the presence of experiments to look for life had pushed more basic equipment off the Viking landers." Scientists might have learned much more about Martian geology and the atmosphere of Mars, but rocks and gasses do not capture the public imagination in the same way.
Duggins goes on to describe the series of Mars explorations. The Mars Pathfinder, for example, landed its little Sojourner vehicle with its six little wheels, in huge bouncing airbags. The Sojourner lasted 90 days, instead of the expected seven. Good news.
But, as Duggins must report, there were dreadful failures.
Mars Climate Orbiter went silent.
Mars Polar Lander crashed because some of the parts were manufactured using English measurements, some metric.
Now the debate is between unmanned missions and manned missions. And the question is complex.
Unmanned missions are much cheaper and, many believe, can get more science done.
Manned missions are thrilling, but complicated. Should we, for example, begin with a moon base?
Whatever we do , should the U.S. go it alone or in partnership with other countries, including Russia?
If we send people, what kind of people? In the past, astronauts were overachievers: test pilots, M.D.'s and engineers. Perhaps on the trip that takes two years, we should send individuals who test high on mechanical skills, can repair things and have easy-going personalities.
And what will they drink? There is being developed a purifier for waste water, sweat and urine, reminiscent of the suits worn in the novel "Dune." Not an appetizing prospect, but clearly necessary.
And what will the travelers eat? Duggins has a good time talking about the gardens on the spaceship and the vegetables to be grown on Mars; sweet potatoes and asparagus will grow there, some think.
Of course, if anything goes wrong anywhere, the explorers will die, and as a culture we have yet to come to terms with this. The Challenger and Columbia catastrophes injured the national psyche and set back NASA considerably. How would we deal with astronauts lost, perhaps trapped, on Mars?
This is not the best time to bring anything like this before Congress, either. Sending one pound of cargo to the Moon perhaps cost $15,000, whereas Mars might cost $140,000 per pound. The launch price for the mission might be $28 billion. As Duggins makes clear, there is no unanimity over whether this is how the U.S. wishes to use its financial resources.
In any case, with manned exploration surely many years away, future Mars explorers are now in the fifth grade.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."