Apr 18, 2018

If You're Not a Martian, You Must Be Some Kind of Moonster

NASA says Moon. Elon Musk says Mars. 

They maintain a sizable difference of opinion - approximately 40 million miles' worth - and each choice is reflective of a methodology and a deeper belief system, which is always the case when humans are involved.  

Federally funded space behemoth NASA says we should test, refine, get our bearings in deep space by orbiting the Moon for a bit first. Entrepreneur Elon Musk fires Falcon Heavy successfully into space, sticks the landing, and says 'enough already, Earth is a troubled planet and we're set for Mars.' His exclamation mark to that sentiment is the Falcon Heavy cargo - stuffed representative "Starman," strapped into a bright red Tesla, now hurtling toward its matching red destination.  

Elon Musk's Starman
You can even follow the Starman's progress and keep up with which musical selections he has been listening to. As of this moment, the popular site WhereIsRoadster posts:  "Assuming the battery still works, Starman has listened to Space Oddity 18,823 times since launch in one ear, and to Is There Life On Mars? 25,363 times in the other ear." 

Mars does at times seem flashier, with its newfound celebrity aura. Musk clearly helps with Mars marketing; his latest deep-space-bound rocket is called the BFR (it stands for Big Falcon Rocket, but the press is enjoying the clear invitation to use the other option). Luminary physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned that starting a Mars colony is the only hope for the survival of humankind. Matt Damon swaggered through Mars' dust and proved its habitability by growing a lot of potatoes. 

Famous astronaut Buzz Aldrin, in his 2013 book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, writes"Mars has been flown by, orbited, smacked into, radar examined, and rocketed onto, as well as bounced upon, rolled over, shoveled, drilled into, baked and even blasted. Still to come: Mars being stepped on.” In a speech to delegates at George Washington University, Aldrin began and ended his speech with the phrases, “No flags or footprints this time,” and “Get your ass to Mars!” (the latter clearly carefully chosen from the movie Total Recall).

But lest you think NASA's plan is any less exciting than a direct line to Mars, hold onto your hats. Phase 0 is already in full swing, with astronauts living in space and testing in science labs on the International Space Station to determine how biology, chemistry, and the human body function in space; information that will be instrumental in helping a future Mars colony survive.  

NASA astronaut Tim Kopra working in the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox in the Destiny Lab aboard the International Space Station. Credits: NASA
Phase I, beginning this year and ending in 2025, will include the launch and testing of six SLS rockets with the capacity to deliver components of the Deep Space Gateway (DSG), a new space station that will orbit the Moon and become a launchpad for astronauts heading to Mars. 

Beyond this, the phases are not yet officially part of NASA's budget, but they are nonetheless awesome to contemplate, like Phase II, the Deep Space Transport (DST) tube. The DST will be launched toward the lunar station with astronauts on board inhabiting the tube for more than 400 days. 

Credits: NASA

In 2030, Phase III will begin. The DST tube will be restocked with supplies, plus the first Mars crew. In 2033, Phase IV sends the astronauts to Mars.
Credits: NASA (manipulated imagery)

Canadian ex-ISS astronaut and space-fan-favorite Chris Hadfield is a proponent of this scaffolded approach, and has the firsthand experience to know what is at stake. His take: "There are six people living on the International Space Station, and we have had people there continuously for nearly 17 years. But the reality is we have not yet figured out how to live permanently off-planet."

Who comes out ahead, the disruptive innovator (Musk) or the incremental innovator (NASA)? Here on Earth, the tech world gnaws on this familiar question, too, and though our initial thought was of the Tortoise vs. the Hare, this horse metaphor we found was chewier, 

"Incremental innovation would have made a healthier horse, whereas disruptive innovation begat the automobile." 

It's hard to resist the temptation to be the exciting next thing that changes the world. The success stories of iPad, Skype, Netflix, Pandora in disrupting their markets and paving the way for the next innovations have made them historic markers, but the cobwebbed list of hopeful disruptors gives us pause. Tour groups on Segways used to come to a halt in formation at the top of our Center's hilly driveway, "like the Rohirrim," we generously chimed. But they soon rolled on, joined the quiet ranks of the Palm Pilot, the Blackberry, AOL. It may well be that they were important moments along the way to something greater, but stepping stone is not the dream of the disruptor.  

Over the past few months Musk has mentioned the idea of creating his own "Moon Base Alpha" as an incremental motion toward Mars, but his voice lacks that visionary luster when he says it - plus the name is conspicuously not racy -  so it's hard to feel convinced.  

We'll keep you posted on Moon vs Mars, so you can decide which kind of innovator you would blast off with. Until then, Earthlings, your colonization prep is to memorize all the new space acronyms for dinner party space talk one-upping: "You guys going BFR... or ISS to the DST to the DSG?"

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