The release of a hit movie about the adventures of an astronaut marooned on the Red Planet, coupled with the “discovery” of liquid water running on the surface of Mars, has been an intoxicating moment in an otherwise dry spell for the Marsophiles at our national space agency. This confluence of events, accompanied by hosanna-singing press coverage (at least partly orchestrated by the agency itself), has advocates toasting each other – our “#JourneyToMars” is proceeding apace. Hallelujah! Our national space program might be saved!
Then again, maybe not. How much of this hype is rooted in real accomplishment and how much is mere puffery? If finding “water on Mars” sounds familiar, that’s because finding “water on Mars” is announced every couple of years and each time, we get the same breathless assertions that “human missions” to the planet (sometimes even habitation) are now possible. But is any of this true?
Publishing a scientific paper does not mean that its conclusions are correct or that a problem has been solved. Even if the new interpretation is correct, it does nothing to advance the cause of a human Mars mission; it is only an incremental advance in our knowledge of the planet (previous alternative explanations for crater wall streaks did not involve the flow of liquid water).
Some news accounts assert that the availability of liquid water makes human surface missions easier to undertake, as water is a vital consumable for long-term presence of people on the martian surface. However, this liquid water is extremely saline (a brine) and needs extensive distillation and processing to make it useable, requiring much more energy than would be needed to simply melt ground ice, which is already relatively pure and whose presence on the planet has been known for the last 40 years. The existence of saline brines is geologically interesting but it has no significant implications for sustaining a human presence.
The real impact of this discovery relates to the supposed link between liquid water and the possible emergence and presence of microbial life. The Quest for Life Elsewhere obsession has consumed NASA for over 50 years. The “Follow the water” strategy for Mars was a surrogate for the “look for the bugs” quest. In an amusing twist, the increasing likelihood of microbes existing on Mars creates a problem for a NASA intent on sending astronauts there, as we could permanently contaminate the martian biosphere, rendering future scientific results questionable to the extent that they might be unanswerable. This mindset is expressed in a recent Planetary Society blog post, where potential Mars astronauts are characterized as possessing “filthy meatbag bodies” that should be kept in orbit, so as not to irreversibly change the Eden-like martian surface.
New scientific discoveries enjoy short press cycles and then rapidly exit, stage left. But not to worry, the real event – the one that NASA is hitching their star to – is the release of the movie The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, in which an astronaut struggles for survival after being accidentally left behind during a future human mission to Mars. The story is entertaining and I enjoyed the book (I have not seen the movie). It reminded me of another movie with a very similar plotline, the classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun and nobody in Hollywood ever lost box office by re-making something previously done. What is remarkable is the agency’s clear intent (during a time of unclear goals) of hitching their Mars mission dreams to the movie’s anticipated popularity.
NASA’s manned space efforts relate not so much to current accomplishment but rather to publicizing promised future accomplishments. In the case of The Martian, the agency’s PR warp engine has slipped into hyper-drive. Leading this media charm barrage is a 19-page memo sent out to agency employees instructing them how to take advantage of the release of a new movie about Mars. Among the gems in this document are mantras to be chanted (“NASA = Mars, Mars = NASA”), sage advice (“Be a Martian”), technically true but misleading exaggerations (“NASA is at Mars”) and aspirational self-deception (“NASA is working on sending people to Mars”). But it doesn’t stop there. This top-level direction is followed by a dozen more pages of lists of PR events, movie screenings, astronaut appearances, and the invidious “talking points,” those full-metal jacketed rhetorical bullets loaded in the firearms of modern societal discourse.
Apparently, NASA believes that as this movie takes off in popularity, a public wound-up about space exploration will demand that the agency be showered with additional money. Once that happens, the Marsophiles say they will achieve their human mission to Mars fantasy sooner than the “sometime within the next 25 years” timeline currently in place. This is inline with the agency’s unsuccessful 50-year strategy of believing that in order to stay in business they must generate enthusiastic public support (apparently they are the only federal agency that has adopted this mindset). Thus, Congress and the administration have not been excluded from this PR blitz strategy, which includes a date-unspecified “White House screening” of the film. Instead of actually doing something, we can all watch the movie. It isn’t surprising that the public has become cynical about what is science and what is politics – what is real and what isn’t. “Science” has become a useful political tool and because of that, the credibility of scientific inquiry and the public’s understanding of science and how it works have suffered greatly.
Reporter Eric Berger complains that nothing in the new movie shows the presence of New Space companies, those allegedly private sector, commercial entities that are currently taking the universe by storm. Science writer Ed Regis thinks we should forget about “settling Mars” because people have unrealistic views about the hazards of such an activity. (Done Ed – nothing in NASA’s current plans leads to anything remotely resembling human settlement of another world.) The Explore Mars crowd urges everyone to “stay the course” on NASA’s humans to Mars efforts, without explaining (do they even know?) exactly why anyone should desire this course of action (a “world class” example of how politicized science has done great harm to the public’s understanding, expectations and to their education about what is possible).
NASA’s #JourneyToMars, Inspiration Mars, Mars One, and Elon Musk’s settlement fantasies all fall into the category of what I call the Mars obsession, the spaceflight idée fixe that has kept us busy with devising new architectures and composing beautiful artwork for the past 25 years, but has not advanced any actual spaceflight. Instead of focusing our efforts on an achievable, extendable goal, like building a cislunar transportation infrastructure that could carry us to the planets, we obsess on pie-in-the-sky Mars missions and Hollywood productions that whip up unrealistic expectations, yet accomplish nothing. As mission rationale, Mars advocates have nothing beyond some esoteric science questions (“Do microbes exist in seeping brines on crater walls?”) or wildly unrealistic dreams of planetary settlement (the logistical requirements of which are not even understood, let alone being addressed).
I have little doubt that unless something changes, NASA will “stay the course” they’re wedded to. Politicians, focused on other things, go along with NASA’s Mars dreams because they don’t have to pony up any additional money – they can just smile, cheer and say, “someday – soon.” Some agency employees are okay with “the mission” because they don’t have to do any real engineering – honing instead their considerable Powerpoint skills. The entertainment world likes it because they already work in the field of fiction. And space advocates? Well, they like anything that talks about future space activities – because talking is what they do best.
Going beyond LEO requires us to develop a new mindset and a new approach. We need to build an incremental spaceflight system that advances first to cislunar space, then to the Moon, and then into the Solar System beyond. It should be composed of small pieces sent into space on any available launch vehicle. It must have a flexible plan of deployment and operations, adjustable to budgetary boom and bust cycles (mostly bust for the foreseeable future). And most importantly, to create new spaceflight capabilities, we must learn how to use the vast material and energy resources of space. I advocate going to the Moon to do this because it is close and it has the resources that we need. And learning to use extraterrestrial resources is a skill that we must master if we are ever to become truly “spacefaring.” When a program is realistic and sound, you don’t need to go begging hat in hand to the public, or face ridicule for shamelessly associating yourself with a popular science fiction space movie to suggest that you’re on the right path. When there truly is a real program, business, success and money will follow.
Enjoy The Martian but don’t take it too seriously. Remember all this hoopla next time – along with the wasted time, the wasted budget and the lack of progress.