The Planetary Society has just released its vision of how humans will first arrive at the Red Planet. And I am totally on board with them. As is always true of the Planetary Society, they have adopted both a reality check on what can be accomplished in the face of political opposition, and an informed view of the technical difficulties of the journey.
In a 45-page report, a team of space scientists convened by the Planetary Society has laid out a very sensible and detailed approach to the first manned mission to Mars. You can grab a pdf copy of it here: PlanetarySoc Humans Orbiting Mars.
The gist of it is that we should plan to orbit Mars for quite some time before we land. There are many reasons why, but the most compelling is that you don’t need anywhere near as much rocket fuel to come and go from the Martian moon, Phobos. A base built there would become a center for studying Mars up-close-and-personal, and a staging area for the final push down into the “gravity well” of Mars. Gravity wells are notoriously hard to get out of–sort of like falling into a well on Earth–so the Society proposes to only do this after an orbiting station on Phobos is already fully functional and capable of helping the Earthlings to get back up from the surface. Such matters are a substantial issue in the movie The Martian, in which getting up from the surface is one of the major problems facing stranded astronaut, Mark Watney. In my view, the way the Society proposes to handle such matters is eminently sensible, different from the movie, and probably much more practical. As anticipated by the Society, Watney would have had a rescue team in orbit four thousand miles above him and ready to respond. That seems much more realistic than waiting for rescue from earth, 40 million miles away.
I am proud to be a Charter Member of the Planetary Society. That is, I was one of those folks who made the initial cash contributions to get the organization started. I am proud to see what they have accomplished in the decades since then.
And I guess you could say my original contribution has paid me an unexpected dividend. Among the science fiction novels I am currently working on is an adventure set on Mars during early colonization times around the year 2090. You can bet I’ll be factoring this new roadmap (orbit map?) into the “how we got there” part of my book. One vision illuminates the next.