Getting To Mars…

Why Mars? Why not Mars? JFK himself said, when talking about sending humanity to the moon during his 1962 address at Rice University, “…and they may well ask, Why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly across the Atlantic?” Humanity has always been a race of explorers. Collectively, since the dawn of humankind, we have wondered about the stars, and our place among their majesty. Mars itself is but a stepping stone to the rest of the solar system, much as the Moon is to Mars.

Now the first thing I’ll say here is when talking about getting to Mars is, “I wish!” Yes, I’d LOVE to actually go to the red planet. But, realistically speaking that will never happen for me. I do believe however, that we’ll see humanity set foot on it in my lifetime, and that on its own, will be enough for me. The problem with being the age I am is that I’m too young to recall the early space program; the pioneers and pilots of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs are my childhood heroes, more so than Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and their ilk if I’m honest. And I’m probably too old to really see the frontiers of manned space exploration pushed much beyond Mars.

Size comparison of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules, along with their respective launch vehicles. Image from Reddit.

I grew up in the seventies and eighties, so my earliest recollection of humanity’s exploration of space is Skylab and the Space Shuttle, and we all know what a letdown those were. Although I do have a fond recollection of watching a live shuttle launch on a sick day from school (what a coincidence), and whichever channel it was on put up a phone number whereby you could listen to the live telemetry. Obviously I was like a kid let loose in a sweet shop…not so much when my parents received the £400 phone bill…

Then their was Mir. To me, it didn’t matter if it was built by the Americans or the Russians. It was just people. It’s always been about people. One of the greatest phrases I’ve ever heard in the history of space travel is “for all mankind.” Because that’s what it SHOULD be about. We’re all the same species, the same race. And up there, there are no boundaries, no artificial lines on maps. And as we look back upon our fragile homeworld from orbit, or from the L1 point out beyond the Moon, or even looking back at ourselves from around the orbit of Saturn, there are still no boundaries to see.

Mir, as seen from the space shuttle Endeavour, during STS-89. Image courtesy NASA, public domain.

And now there is the International Space Station, or ISS. But even that is rapidly approaching the end of its useful life, although it’s good to see that there are plans to keep it going for a number of years past it’s “use by date.” What concerns me personally is the commercialisation that’s planned for it. History, especially recent human history, has shown repeatedly that where there are commercial interests invested in something, it’s generally NOT “for all mankind.” So my hope is that when the powers that be consider how to keep the ISS going, whomever they choose, and whomever commits to the funding etc, they keep to that ethos of the exploration of space for the benefit of all of humanity, and not just the shareholders.

So what comes after the ISS? We’ve already been to the Moon in the late 60s and early 70s. Does it serve any purpose if we were to revisit it?

Actually yes, from a number of viewpoints. Scientifically speaking, it’s still fascinating and largely undiscovered. It’s like visiting the depths of the ocean, not seeing much after a couple of visits where you can’t go more than a couple of miles in any direction, then saying it’s empty and there’s nothing there. Also, from the point of view of advancing our further exploration of the solar system, it’s a good stepping stone. NASA has plans for their Gateway Station, which, it’s hoped, will act as a staging point to both the prolonged exploration of the lunar surface,and also to the rest of the solar system. Then there’s the mining of natural resources. The Moon may not look much, but it’s quite rich in natural minerals and metals. Although it would be great if we didn’t completely plunder it like we have done the Earth. Humanity though, has a knack of repeating the mistakes of it’s past. Still, one can but hope.

Brief History of Mars Exploration

I’m going to bypass the early years when it was looked upon by ancient civilisations as the god of whatever. Those were generally around warfare, mainly due to its orange/red colour, although Holst’s piece for his Planets suite still seems quite insightful to this day.

Instead I’m going to focus more on our getting TO the red planet, and the probes that we’ve launched to it.

Plenty of probes over the decades have been launched to Mars, but not without their “glitches.” In fact at one point, so many probes had been lost in the quest to land on the surface, or even to just achieve a successful orbit, that there was superstitious talk about “the curse of Mars.”

As of October 2016 (source: Universe Today) some 55 missions have been launched to Mars in one form or another. Of those, only 53% have arrived safely. These include flybys, orbiters and landers. It’s no wonder that normally rational scientists become a tad tetchy at the prospect of going anywhere near the red planet! But all things being equal, there is no actual curse; it’s just incredibly difficult to get there, let alone land on it!! All of that though, merely adds (in my eyes) to the romanticism of us eventually stepping foot on the Martian surface. Let’s just hope though, that those first manned missions are more successful than the 47% that didn’t fair so well…

There have been some notable success stories though, including Pathfinder and Opportunity, and those success stories have added hugely to our understanding of that world and it’s dynamics. NASA currently has a subsite from its main site dedicated entirely to Mars exploration. Why not go have a look?

So then, my own actual probability of ever reaching Mars, is realistically so mathematically remote as to be not worth considering. Which is a bit of a shame because I’d personally love to go for a stroll up Olympus Mons one weekend. Or camping in Utopia Planetia. The best I can hope to achieve at this point is to image Mars from the back garden.

If you can’t take Mohammed to the mountain, then bring the mountain to Mohammed…

Mars, opposition 2020, mars 2020
Mars, just out of opposition 2020

Is this the best Mars you’ll ever see? Absolutely not! But for me it’s the best version I’ve obtained so far, considering my equipment limitations, my own physical and neurological limitations, and that good old best of British limitation, the weather!

Mars is just coming out of it’s closest approach to Earth until the year 2035, and won’t be in opposition again now for another 24 months. But I’m hoping for one last shot at it this time around, and definitely hoping for a better image on the next run.

So for now, I leave you with my meagre attempt at the red planet. Keep your eyes up, and clear skies all!

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