Pilgrims for Mars

Scientists set sights on a new frontier - settling the Red Planet

When the Spanish came to the New World in the early 16th century, they were looking for cities of gold and the fountain of youth - material wealth and eternal prosperity for the Old World.

A hundred years later, when the Pilgrims came to North America, they were not looking for material gain, says Robert Zubrin, an engineer who founded the Mars Society after he rewrote the way NASA could conceive a human mission to Mars. In the process of taming a "howling wilderness," the Pilgrims and other settlers discovered something about themselves. He sees a parallel between humanity's early modes of colonization and the quest for a mission to Mars.

The pilgrims saw "their own potential to create a new kind of civilization, one that encompassed the creation of new cultures, new cities, new universities, new modes of government. In short, they really did envision a New World," Dr. Zubrin explained to his audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "Think Mars" conference earlier this month in Cambridge.

"We have settled the entire planet. We have now reached the beginning of a new history as a space-faring civilization in order to grow a new branch of civilization," says Zubrin, the author of "Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization" (Tarcher/Putnam).

The fostering of a frontier spirit will force civilization to grow out into space, to Mars. "Americans know that everything they have comes from the pioneering spirit of settlers who took chances. Without a frontier, we will become something less," Zubrin explains in an interview.

In 1989, when President George Bush asked NASA to come up with a plan to get humans to Mars, they came back with an impossible $450 billion bill that included first building a space station, then a moon base, and finally a mission to Mars in a "Death Star"-size rocket.

Zubrin came up with a plan that would sidestep this three-tier process and take humans directly to Mars in smaller craft and for roughly the same cost as that for the space station Freedom. With presidential leadership beginning in 2001, he believes humans could set foot on Mars by 2007.

A business plan to Mars

Founded by Justin Talbot-Stern and Tom Hoag, Think Mars is an organization that consists primarily of students from MIT and the Harvard Business School. They are creating a comprehensive business plan to get humans to Mars. Speaking about this business plan, Kevin Leclaire predicts that by tapping into various market opportunities, including direct sales, promotions, sponsorships, media, entertainment, and technology spin-offs, they could make $7 billion to $55 billion and offset the costs for a Mars mission. NASA predicts a human mission to Mars would cost them $55 billion.

To raise awareness of their business plan, Think Mars scheduled an MIT conference and invited guest speakers like Zubin, Buzz Aldrin, and Franklin Chang-Diaz, a space shuttle astronaut and the director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center where his team is designing a model plasma-propulsion engine.

Dr. Aldrin, the second human to step on the surface of the moon 30 years ago, said that it is possible to go to Mars. We should go "in a progressive way," he said, "when it becomes attractive to politicians, to the public, and when it becomes economical." Aldrin envisions a tourism-centered approach to getting people interested in future space missions.

We should not go to Mars for economic reasons, Zubrin contends. "It's not about snatching up baubles, not about acquiring material objects. That will happen, but it's more about writing a new chapter in the human epic," philosophizes Zubrin. "Imagine if England - after defeating the Spanish Armada - had turned its back on exploration, and turned inward, satisfied with what it had already accomplished."

If during the 15th century, the Chinese had not gone through a change in governmental policy towards exploration, Zubrin says, they would have rounded the Cape of Good Hope and met the Europeans before the Europeans met them. World culture could possibly have been based on Chinese culture instead of that of Western Europe, which colonized some years after the Chinese turned inward. When ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire reached the peak of their civilizations, they began to stagnate.

Zubrin believes a similar danger could occur today in our contemporary civilization: "If there is nothing left to do then people have no freedom to do anything meaningful, and this leads to decay, because there is no desire to develop human potential." The quest for Mars is a quest for attaining new human ideals.

The spirit of a pioneering culture is needed for civilization to continue to grow, develop, and strive, Zubrin says. Otherwise, it would be the end of history, nothing new worth writing about. His plan calls for a permanent base on Mars, where astronauts would use existing materials on the planet to lay the foundation for a new civilization.

Zubrin says that members of the Mars Society have sat down with many members of Congress in their home districts to pitch the case for Mars. He found that about 90 percent of those they talked to responded positively. But the plan needs presidential leadership to make it happen. If presidential candidates have yet to jump on board the Mars plan, then it may be up to Hollywood to stir grass-roots public interest.

Most notably, filmmaker James Cameron, who hasn't put out a film since "Titanic" in 1997, has been studying Zubrin's plan. Mr. Cameron wants to instill the pioneering spirit and the desire for a space frontier in his next film projects: an Imax 3-D film that he will direct and a five-hour television miniseries that he will produce. Both are to be released in early 2000. Zubrin, a co-producer on the projects, says that the film and miniseries will not be science fiction, but a "realistic portrayal of what we might actually do on Mars."

Cameron spoke at the Mars Society's annual conference in Denver this past August. "The films we are making," explained Cameron, "will attempt to show the reality of a humans-to-Mars project ... the challenges and the rewards."

Making a mission to Mars real

In the films, Cameron wants to stress that a Mars mission is a "near-term attainability. We're not trying to show a glitzy, fantastic high-design future, but a tangible, real tomorrow, which is right around the corner." Further, he wants the audience members to say to themselves: " 'This is an adventure which can be real, not just in my lifetime, but soon ... in a few years. I will be a witness to history. I can share in this. I can even participate in this.'"

In a time of national prosperity, our civilization could be on Mars within a decade, Zubrin contends. He notes that the US is far more ready now for a Mars mission than it was when President John Kennedy called for the moon mission in the early 1960s.

NASA is already laying a foundation for the human exploration of Mars. Members of the NASA-led Haughton-Mars project, headed by Pascal Lee of NASA Ames Research Center, have been surveying the Haughton impact crater and its surrounding area at Devon Island near the Arctic circle in Canada for the last three summers.

Dr. Lee explained how this site - the largest uninhabited island in the world and the only polar desert on Earth - provides similar conditions to a Martian surface. Indeed, a slide image of Haughton resembles photographs of the Martian surface. In July 2000, the Mars Society is sponsoring a Mars Arctic Research Station - a self-contained habitat that will be modeled on an actual Mars habitat - for the team. The reality of Mars is getting closer.

Cameron believes in Zubrin's message of civilization's need for a frontier spirit: "The human soul is starved for challenge," says Cameron. "Only our outbound quest can satisfy this hunger, which is a very real hunger that is at once spiritual, psychological, and emotional, as well as intellectual. We do this for knowledge, and to hone our technical capabilities. But most of all, we do it for our deepest hearts, which yearn outward."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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