Next stop Mars

After Columbia, NASA needs a mission. And what better than a manned flight to the red planet?

Stuart Atkinson

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As a 16-year-old space fanatic, I watched the 1981 maiden flight of the space shuttle Columbia with excitement.

I sat in front of the TV, inches away from the screen, and followed the countdown. There was a billow of steam from beneath the stack as the engines flared, and then Columbia was pushing upwards, reaching for the sky and beyond.

Jump forward two decades, and my excitement for the space programme is still as strong. On 1 February 2003, I turned on the radio in time to hear a studio guest say what a ‘tragedy it is for the astronauts’ families’. Columbia and her crew were lost.

I always had a special place in my heart for Columbia. I had watched her fly over my house several times. She was probably my favourite of the fleet, not just because she was the first to fly, but because she was different. With those unique, triangular black blocks on the leading edge of her wings, she was instantly recognisable. Now she was gone, reduced to countless pieces of gnarled debris strewn over fields and roads in Texas.

Some say that we should stop exploring space, that the cost in human lives is too great. But Columbia’s crew would not have wanted that. We are a curious species, always wanting to know what is over the next hill, around the next corner, on the next island. And we have been that way for thousands of years.

We space enthusiasts have to get people excited about space exploration again. We have to take children to museums and planetaria, and show them the wonders of the universe. We have to take them outside on clear nights and show them the craters of the Moon, the rings of Saturn and the ice caps of Mars through telescopes. We have to show them the International Space Station as it sails overhead, telling them ‘there are people on that star’.

But all of this is just laying the foundation for the real work that needs to be done by NASA and the US government: re-energising public support for manned spaceflight with an ambitious Big Project that has a valuable, practical goal at its heart. And only one project fits these criteria: a manned mission to Mars.

There are many reasons for going to Mars – practical, spiritual and political. But the most important reason is that while people are still excited by the promise of space exploration, they are frustrated by it, because they can see that we’re not actually exploring anymore. People aren’t excited by International Space Station hardware delivery missions to low-Earth orbit, or by scientific flights, regardless of how useful they are. People want a more noble and ambitious space programme. Give the public Mars, and public support for the space programme will fly like a rocket.

There’s an opportunity to light the fuse of that rocket in August 2003. By the end of that month, the various Columbia inquiries should have reported their findings, and Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been for thousands of years. Could there be a better time for NASA to commit itself to an ambitious mission, than when the target of that mission is there for everyone to see?

Wouldn’t a Mars mission be ruinously expensive? Wouldn’t building a bigger International Space Station be a better, safer and cheaper option? Perhaps. But if the loss of Columbia has told us one thing, it is that we ought to stop looking at ‘safer’ and ‘cheaper’ as the only qualifying criteria for space missions. It is time we puffed our chests out and shouted: ‘We can do this!’

We should also go to Mars for the astronauts’ sake. We need to let them do what they have dreamed of doing ever since they filled in their application forms – fly and explore. For too long they have been risking their lives by strapping themselves into seats on top of 60-metre-tall bombs, only to be stranded in Earth orbit as hi-tech delivery truck drivers, ferrying cargo up and down and staring at the stars in frustration. Imagine what it must be like to peer out of the shuttle’s scratched windows and see the Moon and Mars, shining in the darkness, but unable to even think about travelling to them.

Before she died on board Columbia, astronaut Kalpan Chawla wrote: ‘It has taken us just 90 minutes to cover the whole planet. Just 90 minutes! That phrase starts to ring like a mantra in my head. The realisation that Earth is such a small planet is overpowering. It seems to me like a harbour, luring space explorers with the colour of life. I picture gentle waves lapping the shorelines, trees waving their branches in the wind. I feel we must search for another such harbour. Mars, perhaps?’ (1)

After the Challenger disaster in 1986, shuttle flights resumed, satellites were deployed again, and astronauts spacewalked. Apart from enhanced safety features in the orbiters, it was business as usual – we were content to loiter on the street corner of the universe, staring at the bright city lights in the distance but not daring to set off to see them for ourselves. We cannot do that this time. The choices we face now are stark but clear.

We can give up. We can decide that it’s just not worth the vast expense and loss of life, and turn our backs on manned spaceflight. The remaining shuttles could be towed into hangars, covered with tarpaulins, and left to the spiders and flies. The International Space Station could be evacuated and abandoned, and the present crew brought back home in a Soyuz capsule, like the last lifeboat dropping down the side of the Titanic.

Or….

We mourn the fallen, and then do whatever we must to move forward with purpose and resolve, to ensure that they did not give their lives for nothing. We design and build a reliable shuttle replacement, we make the International Space Station the incredible asset and solar system ‘gateway’ that it could be, and we give NASA a purpose once more – to lead a bold but realistic and integrated space programme, with a manned mission to Mars as its ultimate aim.

If we lose our nerve now, then Columbia’s crew really did die for nothing. And there will have been no point in us climbing down from the trees in the first place.

Stuart Atkinson is the author of seven children’s books on spaceflight and astronomy, and runs a science outreach programme in the north of England.

Read on:

The end of the space race?, by Sandy Starr

Challenging Columbia, by Norman Levitt

2001: Retreat from the Space Odyssey, by Sandy Starr

Why have we still not walked on Mars?, by Henry Joy McCracken

(1) Kalpan Chawla, in Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years – The Astronauts’ Experiences in Their Own Words, ed Tony Reichhardt, Dorling Kindersley, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

This is an edited version of an article originally published on New Mars

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