SPACE

A superpower race to the red planet

William Lowther November 26 1984
SPACE

A superpower race to the red planet

William Lowther November 26 1984

A superpower race to the red planet

SPACE

William Lowther

In their quest for life in space, scientists have few clear signposts to guide them. One thing they do know, however, is that there will soon be intelligent life on Mars—human life. According to participants at a symposium held by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Washington late last month, the only important unanswered question about the first Martians is what language they will speak—English or Russian. Clearly, the race to Mars is on.

The U.S. plan to launch an orbiting space station by 1992 will be the country’s first small step to Mars, according to Michael Duke, chief of the solar system exploration division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. And Harrison Schmitt, one of the 12 Apollo astronauts to walk on the surface of the moon, told the symposium that a U.S. mission to Mars could occur around 2010. But, warned Schmitt: “All data indicate the Soviets are gearing their space program to establish sovereignty in deep space and on Mars before us.”

Neither nation has announced formal plans to colonize the red planet. But Schmitt and others at NASA believe that an imminent Soviet space spectacular will signal the start of the race. Said Schmitt: “To date, the Soviets have made no public comment about their plans for future space exploration. However, an attempt to put Soviet cosmonauts in the vicinity of Mars by October, 1992, the 75th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, is not only possible, it is highly probable.” While Schmitt says he is not convinced that the Soviets will actually land a man on Mars at that time, he believes they will at least orbit the planet.

As with so many other Soviet projects, the evidence is fragmentary. But there are three major indications that the Soviets are headed for Mars. The first, Duke told Maclean’s, is the experience in marathon missions aboard the orbiting Salyut space station. This fall

three Soviet cosmonauts returned from a record 237-day expedition aboard Salyut-7, which is about the period it would take a spaceship to reach Mars. The second comes from U.S. intelligence reports that the Soviets are building a new booster system about the size of the Saturn V rocket, which took the U.S.

astronauts to the moon. Said Duke: “It has Mars capabilities.” Third, said Duke, recent Soviet scientific journals have contained an abundance of material on Mars. “Mars is clearly a target,” he added. “The Soviets have advanced capabilities in space. They have not performed a big, exciting space event for a long time. They are due.”

But Duke says he does not believe the Soviets will be capable of manning a trip to Mars by 1992. Instead, he speculates that on the 75th anniversary of the revolution Moscow may announce a massive Mars program with the objective of a manned landing at the end of the century. Even that will put enormous pressure on Washington to match the goal, according to Duke, just as the launching of Sputnik 1 in October, 1957, triggered the

first space race.

Speaking at the NASA symposium, Schmitt contended that enthusiasm for Mars missions in the United States may already be sufficient to sustain a major effort without the added impetus of a Soviet challenge. Said Schmitt: “The idea of Americans one day living on

Mars has produced a level of excitement in the young generation like nothing else in the last century.” Nor will the lack of technical capabilities inhibit a Mars program. Added Schmitt: “There is very little technical distance between us here today and a manned base on Mars.” The problem is money. Mounting

a Mars mission would require a huge U.S. commitment of funds, although no one is prepared to make a guess about how much. To help free the funds, NASA will likely capitalize on the Soviet threat to colonize Mars while at the same time pressing ahead with its own stepping-stone projects.

NASA took its first tentative step toward Mars when President Ronald Reagan authorized an $8billion space station last January. And NASA administrator James Beggs

told the symposium that a permanent U.S. lunar base, to be completed by the first years of the next century, would be a “rational extension of our program to expand human activities in space.” Added Beggs: “We will return to the moon not only to mine its oxygen-rich rocks and other resources but to establish an outpost for further exploration and expansion of human activities in the solar system—in particular on Mars and the near-Earth asteroids.”

The prospect of mining lunar oxygen is not as ludicrous as it seems. Nearly half of the moon’s composition is oxygen, and chemically extracting it from lunar rocks could provide fuel for rockets that would be launched from moon orbit on trips to Mars and beyond. The reason: liquid hydrogen, which could also be manufactured on the moon, mixed with the oxygen is a basic propellant. Former U.S. astronaut Buzz Aldrin told Maclean's that materials for use in space exploration can also be mined on the moon. Lunar rocket launches would not have to overcome the difficulties of breaking through Earth’s gravity, which is six times stronger than the moon’s. Lower gravity would also ease the job of lifting metals from the moon into space, according to Aldrin. For the purpose of reaching Mars, he said that the moon could serve as a gigantic “gas station in the sky.”

Although NASA has yet to seek political approval for its lunar base, U.S. space scientists speaking at the conference produces studies describing its main elements. The first stage will feature cramped and uncomfortable submarine-like units similar to those planned for the space station, which will be buried in the lunar soil to shield them from radioactivity. Ultimately, the settlement will have five basic components of a more luxurious nature, according to space scientist Guillermo Trotti of the University of Houston. There will be a space port, a communications and civic centre, a housing and recreation complex, an academic centre and an industrial component to house the laboratories, workshops and refineries necessary to produce food and exports. With factories producing oxygen and water, as many as 100 residents will be able to stay for a year or more.

As the first step on the highway to Mars, the U.S. moon station will mark a fundamental change in the role of the astronauts. They will no longer be visitors, but rather colonizers. It is a thought that even makes scientists lyrical. Concluded one report: “The exploration of space touches the most profound elements of human nature. It excites our spirit of adventure and challenges us to achieve our full potential. It confronts us with the awesome beauty of creation.”^