All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2017:

Six Principles of a Sustainable Manned Mars Programme (June)

Pale Red Dot: Mars comes to Oxford (May)

Back to 2016:

Elon Musk and Mars: Looking for a Snowball Effect (Oct.)

New in 2015:

Short story The Marchioness

AE posts:

2017: Mars…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index

General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Issue 132, 20 May 2017 – 48th Apollo Anniversary Year

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Pale Red Dot: Mars comes to Oxford

No artificial gravity for NASA’s Mars astronauts

One of the more significant comments at the Oxford Martin School’s recent Mars panel discussion came from Dr Ellen Stofan, former NASA Chief Scientist, when she agreed that the long-term solution for human travel between Earth and Mars would require artificial gravity, but that NASA does not have the money to develop this right now.

Pale Red Dot

She was responding to Andy Weir, author of the popular novel and movie The Martian, who had mentioned the artificial gravity produced in spinning wheels in amusement parks. But apparently this technology is too advanced for NASA, or else perhaps it would make interplanetary travel too easy. Fans of The Martian will remember the luxurious accommodation shown in the movie aboard the Earth–Mars ferry Hermes, complete with its rotating passenger modules.

In other words, NASA remains focused on trying to relive the glory days of Apollo, rather than on developing the technologies that will actually be needed for the permanent expansion of our civilisation into the rest of the Solar System.

Mars for science and possible eventual settlement

Dr Colin Wilson, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Oxford and ESA, was more interested in the science to be done on Mars. The conditions there made researching Mars like looking into Earth’s own past, with obviously the big question still being: did life ever emerge on the Red Planet? He envisaged the future of Mars as being like that of Antarctica, with research bases but no permanent settlement for the foreseeable future. Though he did also envisage another possibility: where some wealthy entrepreneur leapfrogs official humans to Mars programmes by sending colonists on a one-way trip there, which would be much cheaper than having to set up a full two-way transport network.

Libby Jackson, the UK Space Agency human spaceflight manager, discussed the dangers of the journey to Mars and the stay there, including radiation, microgravity and isolation. She did not see the planet being colonised soon, unless a very large sum of money was spent on it. Andy Weir agreed that a self-sustaining Mars settlement is still centuries away.

Ellen Stofan made the important point that, because of its closeness, the Moon can become a tourist destination, and therefore there will be hotels on the Moon before settlements on Mars. But she did not say what NASA was doing to stimulate the growth of the space tourism industry.

The public fascination with Mars continues

The main take-away message seems to be that Mars still evokes public fascination. The event was the first of a series of events at the Oxford Martin School under the general heading of “Grand Challenges in Environmental Research”. It was free to attend and tickets were quickly snapped up, so that the organisers were forced to enlarge the meeting space to make room for more attendees.

The questions asked at the beginning of the session did not receive any definitive answers:

But the take-home message from both Andy Weir and Ellen Stofan was a useful contradiction of the popular fantasy of Mars as an escape from the problems of Earth: it is easier to fix Earth’s problems than it is to colonise Mars. Yet sending astronauts to Mars is still valuable for their role in shedding light on the fundamental question: is humanity alone in the Universe? And Colin Wilson reminded us that the money spent by space agencies is still very small in comparision with government expenditures on other things.

The event is recorded for posterity on the Oxford Martin School’s channel YouTube.

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