Did you ever have a beloved pet disappear as a child and your parents told you that it had been sent off to live on a farm where it could chase rabbits, roll in the grass and play with the rest of the pets? And what the heck does that have to do with NASA and our space program? The answer is found in a strange but yet intriguing editorial in the New York Times by Lawrence M. Krauss. I’ve written here in the past regarding my opinion that unmanned space flight, at least for the time being, is more desirable than manned missions to either the Moon or Mars. One of the biggest concerns, obviously, is the magnitude of danger to the astronauts and the loss of their lives on such long, perilous missions.
Mr. Krauss has a different approach to the problem. What if you just sent the astronauts with no plans to bring them back and just plan for them to die on Mars? He lays out one scenario for sending missions there, defined by “decoupling” the return voyage from the trip there.
But once arrival is decoupled from return, one should ask whether the return trip is really necessary.
Surely if the point of sending astronauts is to be able to carry out scientific experiments that robots cannot do (something I am highly skeptical of and one of the reasons I don’t believe we should use science to attempt to justify human space exploration), then the longer they spend on the planet the more experiments they can do.
Moreover, if the radiation problems cannot be adequately resolved then the longevity of astronauts signing up for a Mars round trip would be severely compromised in any case. As cruel as it may sound, the astronauts would probably best use their remaining time living and working on Mars rather than dying at home.
Krauss did an informal poll of people currently working in the program, and the results aren’t really surprising. When asked if they would undertake the mission with no possibility of returning, people still wanted to go. I think that ties in to the fundamental nature of heroes and the sort of person who volunteers to go into space in the first place. If they set off on such a mission in the near future, there would be a very real chance they weren’t going to make it back anyway. And yet the competition to get into the program remains stiff.
Obviously, I wouldn’t expect either Congress or the public to approve of such a concept, but it’s certainly food for thought. I’ll withhold judgment on it for the time being myself.