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Author calls for manned Mars mission

Speaking like a man with a mission, Dr. Robert Zubrin advocated his ideas for cheap, lightweight trekking to Mars in a presentation to the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium at its annual forum on November 12.

Dr. Zubrin is co-author of The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must as well as executive chairman of the National Space Society and president of Pioneer Astronautics. He maintains that NASA's former $450 billion concept of Mars travel, which included a 30-year timeline and a spaceship dependent on as-yet-undeveloped technology, was the antithesis of a successful expedition.

Instead, he models his plan for a Mars mission after the first successful European expedition of the Northwest Passage. "Travel light, live off the land and go on a shoestring budget," he said. "It is only by looking at how humans have successfully explored the Earth that we can tell how they can successfully explore Mars." The reason for such a mission, he said, is to determine if Mars did, does or could support life.

Dr. Zubrin was a senior engineer at Martin Marietta Astronautics Co. (now Lockheed Martin) in 1989 when the firm was asked to put together an alternative to NASA's Mars plan. The Mars Direct plan that he and his colleagues came up with was the "the most radical" alternative to the NASA approach, he said. It calls for launching a ship from Earth directly to Mars, rather than from the moon, as some plans require.

It also advocates going to Mars in the next few years, using available technology and methods previously employed only in unmanned missions. "The crew and their habitat can be sent directly to Mars by the upper stage of the same booster rocket that lifts them out of Earth's orbit," he said.

By reducing the total mass being sent to Mars, we can get there in 10 years or less using off-the-shelf propulsion systems, Dr. Zubrin said. For example, the proposed Mars Direct booster rocket, called Ares, could be "built out of things found in junkyards today," he said.

A reduction in mass can be achieved by sending the mission in segments and by producing fuel for the return flight on Mars, instead of carrying it from Earth. Dr. Zubrin said a working In-Situ Propellant Production chemical plant has been built, and proves that making the fuel on Mars is a viable concept.

The first launch, an unmanned payload from Earth to Mars containing an Earth Return Vehicle and a small truck with a nuclear reactor mounted on it, could be ready by 2005, he said.

It would also carry with it the chemical plant and 6 tons of liquid hydrogen to use in manufacturing fuel for the return trip. The nuclear reactor would be used to energize the chemical plant after landing so it could begin its work -- combining the hydrogen with the carbon dioxide in the Mars atmosphere to produce methane fuel for the return trip, and water and oxygen for the crew's use when they arrive.

This payload would be joined by two separate launches in 2007: another package of supplies, and four crew members in the "Beagle" ship. The crew would live on Mars, exploring and conducting scientific experiments. After 180 days, the crew could come back to Earth, leaving behind living quarters (the "hab"), a greenhouse for experiments, a land rover, chemical and power plants, a stockpile of fuel and most of their scientific instruments. Everything could remain in readiness for the next group of scientist/astronauts.

Dr. Zubrin does not see Mars as a short-term venture. He believes it could easily become an enduring project if we send a launch up every two years. The experiment could be transformed into a colony, staffed with people who could learn "the craft of living on Mars," he said. Using supplies from Earth, they could build small factories and rely upon Mars's natural resources to manufacture other necessities such as additional building materials, he added.

Dr. Zubrin estimates the cost of the mission at $20 billion initially and $2 billion for each additional launch, which he calls "a very small price to pay for a new world." He encourages people who believe strongly in the need for Mars travel to contact elected officials in Washington and/or join the new Mars Society, established to promote and raise money for a mission to Mars.

Not going to Mars by 2005, he said, is "an abdication of human responsibility. We shouldn't leave it until the year 3005."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 19, 1997.

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