ABC Australia: The Science Show–A Ticket to Mars
The Science Show: 20 March 2004 – A Ticket to Mars
Robyn Williams: Here’s an invitation. Would you like to go down in history, have an unbelievable adventure all expenses paid and go to Mars. There’s just one snag, you won’t come back. Interested?
Let’s set the scene with Richard Zare, he’s well known in connection with the Mars meteorite once thought to contain signs of life. So, should we henceforth explore space with people, or only robots?
Richard Zare: I fall on the side that says we should do both, but we should do both with a balanced policy. I believe that robotics is the first thing we must concentrate on because it’ll allow us to go where, even if we are successful with human space travel, we don’t want to go, because it’s either too hot or too cold or it has too much radiation to be healthy for individuals to go. And moreover, we can go further away and take longer to get there and not worry about and complain about it: no bad letters coming back about how bored you are on this type of travel. On the other hand, I actually believe it’s important, very important to have a dream. And I have a dream, and many people do, that we will in time indeed spread out from Earth, perhaps making bases first on the Moon and moving to such other planets like Mars.
We have to learn however, probably to do this more cheaply than we presently do it and so there’s a reason not to rush that, but go there we will, I’m positive of that. And is it risky? Of course it is but it’s worth doing very much, because as I see it, it will get at some very fundamental questions that have puzzled everyone. Who are we? Where have we been? Where are we going? What’s the nature of life? What started life? Is there life elsewhere? Is the Earth a fluke? Is the Earth actually very common in terms of planets around stars that also can support life? Things of this sort. And I think those big questions, huge questions will drive us to explore. Indeed I think deep in the human psyche there’s a sense of wanting to explore.
I’ll remind everyone if I might, that about 150 years ago it was actually quite unsafe to go from the east coast of the United States to the west coast of the United States, yet many people did. Well there’s going to be more pioneers and yes, there will be risks.
Robyn Williams: Professor Richard Zare, a chemist who also has an interest in Guinness as you’ll hear. Back to those risks involved in space travel. Doug Osheroff is a distinguished physicist at Stanford University. He won the Nobel Prize in 1996 and he was on the committee investigating the crash of the Columbia Space Shuttle, which happened just over a year ago. How does he see the practical prospects of missions in the near future?
Doug Osheroff: Well, the shuttle obviously its days are limited in any event, we’re down to three, they are never going to make any more. It certainly was the feeling by the members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that the probability that we lose another one in the next ten years is pretty high. These things are beginning to age and NASA doesn’t seem to be studying this particular problem, maybe it will be after this accident.
Robyn Williams: So the prospects of it taking off again must be quite slim?
Doug Osheroff: Oh no, I think the shuttle system will definitely be taking off again. First of all, if you look at the safety record of the shuttle, what fraction of the launches have been successful – 98%. That is about as high as any other launch vehicle, period. So it isn’t that in fact it is an incredibly unsafe launch vehicle, I think what’s true is that it remains only a modestly safe launch vehicle, despite the fact that NASA pours enormous amount of money into trying to make it safe.
Robyn Williams: How are you going to service the Space Station if you’ve got so few shuttle missions left?
Doug Osheroff: Well, I think that’s part of the reason that NASA has decided to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope; they want to husband every flight that they can possibly get out of these things. You know it’s interesting, I’ve said in board meetings many times that as far as NASA was concerned safety is an issue not because of human life but because of orbital life, that’s clearly true.
Robyn Williams: But here’s the paradox. When you’ve got the prospect of serving a space station where you have limited scientific merit, according to some people, versus the Hubble Telescope, which has produced wondrous results, how do you assess that paradox?
Doug Osheroff: Well, I don’t know who it is, I would guess that people, biological sciences at NASA have made a very strong point that if you’re going to send people to Mars – I personally don’t think we should, or we will – that you absolutely have to understand the effects of reduced or zero gravity on biological systems, particularly human physiology. And the only place you can really do that is in orbit and this space station is really designed to do that and I don’t think it’s really designed to do much other science.
Robyn Williams: Do you expect there to be a replacement for Hubble in the near future?
Doug Osheroff: Well, of last fall NASA approached Congress and wanted incremental funding for the orbital space plane, which is a replacement for the human transport. The shuttle actually serves a dual purpose: it ferries human beings to and from low earth orbit but it also delivers huge pieces of hardware to low earth orbit and I think that will have to be done with yet something else, and presumably it would be done with an unmanned expendable launch vehicle.
Robyn Williams: Professor Doug Osheroff and we’ll hear why he’s against Mars in a minute. First, astronaut Story Musgrave as he appeared on the Science Show giving a less than enthusiastic comment on the shuttle and NASA.
Story Musgrave: What kind of universe have we got, what’s our place in it, what’s it mean to be a human? You’ve got to achieve, you’ve got to try to answer those questions. What is the meaning, the hope of life on earth? Those are the real motivations of space flight, which the space industry and NASA have never really dared put on the table for why they exist.
Robyn Williams: So what can they do with it now the International Space Station which is not even finished yet?
Story Musgrave: Well, I guess and Mr. Bush said and he there was almost a connotation in there that 2010 the shuttle and that would stop. And so by the use of words like, “we will have met our obligations to our international partners”, so what he’s saying is we need to get out of there as soon as we can, as soon as we’ve met our obligations to other people that have made investments. And so it’s a tough thing to do. No, we haven’t finished it, but we have to learn from our errors, it was wrong from the very start. Because you have to look at the public, we ignored the public, what they want, the public loves to reach out into the solar system and beyond.
Robyn Williams: So now that the space shuttle is being investigated and repaired with any luck, would you as an astronaut, I know you’ve retired from your shuttle missions.
Story Musgrave: You never retire.
Robyn Williams: If you were faced with having to go up again…
Story Musgrave: I did not retire, I left. They told me they were not going to fly me any more. It’s a semantic difference but it’s an important difference.
Robyn Williams: So you would have gone?
Story Musgrave: I would have stayed and continued to fly, yes.
Robyn Williams: And what if the prospect now was to go back onto the shuttle, how would you feel about that?
Story Musgrave: Oh I’d go on, I would go on. The team will come together and do the best it can. Actually, since Challenger, I am incredibly proud of that team, they have done the best they possibly could. What people don’t understand is you can’t make this thing safe, it’s the most dangerous vehicle ever contrived.
Robyn Williams: Ever?
Story Musgrave: Ever. And it always was that dangerous but you know, NASA didn’t want it to be that dangerous so they started telling themselves it wasn’t, then they started to believe themselves and you get in trouble. It has hundreds of Criticality 1 items, if that item fails you’re dead – that’s the shuttle. The shuttle is the most dangerous thing ever thought of and so you can’t make it safe, and we need to know that and it has to be part of the equation on the table. The shuttle is not safe and it cannot be made safe, no matter how good the team is and no matter how good the engineering and the decisions are, it cannot be made safe.
Robyn Williams: Story Musgrave, shuttle astronaut – six times. He led the spacewalk to repair the Hubble telescope. But you don’t need to use the shuttle for every mission. Greg Kovacs is about to send some worms up there. He’s a Professor of Electrical Engineering and of Medicine and as we speak a surprising visitor comes in behind me.
Greg Kovacs: Probably about a year from now we have several launches scheduled. There are three organisms we’re flying worms, yeast and flies and they are going to be rotating.
Robyn Williams: What vehicle will they go up in?
Greg Kovacs: The likely candidate would be SpaceX, (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) a commercial venture, we’re talking to them about launching. There are other options that may come and go, the Russians have often been an option and if there’s a half a mid deck locker on a shuttle maybe we’ll go on there, too.
Robyn Williams: I see. It had been programmed for the shuttle but of course that’s on hold.
Greg Kovacs: This wasn’t really intended for the shuttle. These projects came out of John Hinde’s great idea and he’s a person in charge of the contract at NASA and he saw these nanosatellites that Bob Twiggs was doing here at Stanford, he’s a Professor in Aero-Astro, things the size of a toaster or even smaller and he said, well, why don’t we put biology on them and do these biology experiments that aren’t getting much time because of, even before Columbia, the very difficult schedule for getting experiments on the shuttle. So we thought about it and actually started to do it, and that’s what we’re flying on the balloons and that’s what we hope to launch into space. And it’s actually not really toaster size, I take it back, it’s more like a Nintendo game cube, that’s about the size of an XBox: it’s a square.
Robyn Williams: It’s very sad that just over a year since the shuttle crashed, the most recent one, some students and scientists from Australia had spiders go up and in fact of course they never came back, but animals have been going up for a little while, but not that long.
Greg Kovacs: That’s correct. The experiments that have been done though on the shuttle have been very short-term. There were some longer-term things done on MIR and there are some things, a very limited number of things, being done on ISS. But the goal with the free flyers is you could put something in orbit for a year or two and continually collect data, so that’s a completely different paradigm these free flyers.
Robyn Williams: What sort of worms are they?
Greg Kovacs: They’re C elegans (Caenorhabditis elegans), it’s a worm that lives in soil and is pretty small, you know a millimetre or so, a hair width in diameter, about a 1000 cells altogether but every cell is known and the entire genome is known, which is what makes it so special. So if there’s a change due to mutation or other things, we’ll know it.
Robyn Williams: It’s a sort of nematode?
Greg Kovacs: It is a nematode.
Robyn Williams: Very famous, it’s like the fruit fly of its field. But what sort of effects do you expect zero gravity to have on them?
Greg Kovacs: Well, that’s a good question. You know, there are many effects that you see in a whole organism like a human, you know fluid shifts and cardio-vascular deconditioning, bone loss and so on. If there are real genetic mechanisms that are turned on at the cellular level by microgravity you should see something change, some genes expressing different proteins. If not, then it may be that you know these effects only manifest at the organism level. And one of the questions has been at the cellular level – how does a cell know it’s in micro gravity? And we’re trying to address those things and with an animal that’s fully mapped and fully characterised we think we’ll be able to see change.
Robyn Williams: If you do see change, will it be useful knowledge when you’re looking at sending people to Mars on long, long trips like that?
Greg Kovacs: Oh absolutely. It’s almost depressing to note how similarly genetically we are to some of these small organisms and the mechanisms of contraction of muscle for example, of calcium metabolism, they’re not that different. So there are very strongly conserved parts of the genome that map, at least loosely, onto higher organisms, vertebrates and we thing we’re going to learn an awful lot.
Robyn Williams: What about yeast, what do you expect there?
Greg Kovacs: The yeast has a genome almost the size of humans, it’s big. And yeast is much more complex and it’s even better understood genetically, so I think we’re going to see the same kind of effects, if there are any, at the cellular level. That’s the micro gravity side; the radiation side, well, we’ll see probably some mutations and they’ll give us an indication of the level of genomic trouble to expect on a long space transit.
Robyn Williams: How will you get the information back from space if it’s not a manned flight? How will the signals come back to you on Earth so that you can monitor what’s going on?
Greg Kovacs: Well, that’s the interesting aspect that we’ve got our students involved in and our post docs. These are not sample return missions, so you have to make your genomics experiment in situ and that’s driving a lot of good stuff. And the great spin out of all this is clinical diagnostics, because you don’t necessarily want to open that jar again with the nasty goop from the patients, so you do the diagnostic, get the data out and it stays in a little vial. So the automation that allows that on an ongoing basis in orbit actually has very good terrestrial benefits. But the bottom line is, since they’re not sample return, the experiments must be designed to be direct read out.
Robyn Williams: You say you’ve got students involved, are they excited by being involved in a space mission or are they fairly relaxed, blasé about it?
Greg Kovacs: Oh, they love it, they love it. I think the kind of students we get here are enthusiastic about anything, so this is not abnormal for them to be, you know, wide-eyed and smiling. But the space stuff has a certain attraction to it.
Robyn Williams: Yes, is this your first involvement with such things?
Greg Kovacs: Let’s see, aero space no, I worked on radar and various things a long time back but this is the first trying to build and launch pay loads yes.
Robyn Williams: Well, I look forward to the mission.
Greg Kovacs: I hope that you can find out more about it as we get close, you want to come?
Robyn Williams: I’d certainly like to come, but I certainly don’t want to go up in space because anything about this high off the ground is enough for me thank you.
Greg Kovacs: Well our astronaut just walked in so maybe you can ask her what she thinks about that.
Robyn Williams: Oh, this is the astronaut, welcome. Your name is?
Yvonne Cagle: Yvonne Cagle. Dr YvonneCagle
Robyn Williams: Do you happen to know Story Musgrave, because he was on my program last week?
Yvonne Cagle: Yes I do and please Story hello, he’s my all time favourite, he’s a mentor, a role model and just an incredible guy.
Robyn Williams: He was fairly outspoken about the shuttle.
Yvonne Cagle: I imagine so, he’s well familiarised with it and really knows the program and the people.
Robyn Williams: When did you go up?
Yvonne Cagle: I’ll be going up probably in the next, well, with the next life science mission, which will probably be sometime around 2007 – 2008 at this time.
Robyn Williams: How do you sit serenely waiting for a mission three years away?
Yvonne Cagle: Well it’s quite easy, there’s nothing else like it on Earth, it’s the only show in town. And the waiting game is sort of as misnomer because so much activity is going on here on planet Earththat we’re increasing our capability and it’s going to just make my mission that much more possible and exciting and have so much more benefit when I do go.
Robyn Williams: And your co-operation with Professor Kovacs, what will that be made of?
Yvonne Cagle: Oh, this is a wonderful collaboration between the AIMS Research Centre, NASA’s AIMS Research Centre and Stanford University. And this is wonderful opportunity to be able to come together with our biotechnology knowledge and apply it to many of the challenges that we see with long duration space flight in order to resolve some of the stresses that we encounter and use those very same applications to improve our health and our planet right here on Earth.
Robyn Williams: Are you a scientist as well?
Yvonne Cagle: Yes I am.
Robyn Williams: What is your field?
Yvonne Cagle: Well actually I’m a physician, a family practice physician specialised in family medicine and I’m an aero space physician with the Air Force. So I serve as a flight surgeon as well.
Robyn Williams: Wow, well in fact, Story Musgrave is a surgeon, trauma surgeon wasn’t he?
Yvonne Cagle: Yes, yes, quite qualified. I’m more the doc of all trades but he had some skills that we’re really going to be needing as we continue to push the frontiers of space.
Robyn Williams: Well, I wish you luck for 2007.
Yvonne Cagle: Thank you very much.
Robyn Williams: Well, that was a surprise; turn around and you see someone looking like Halle Berry in a blue astronaut suit. Dr, Yvonne Cagle, working with Professor Greg Kovacs at Stanford – both keen to fly, if not necessarily to Mars. Some say it would be foolhardy to send people to the red planet. One is Doug Osheroff.
Doug Osheroff: Well, first of all, the estimated cost back in ‘89 when George Bush Senior proposed going to Mars was between 400/450 billion dollars. If you scale that to present day dollars that’s close to a trillion dollars, I simply don’t think it makes any sense. If you say it takes 30 years to go to Mars you’re spending on average 30 billion dollars a year, that is roughly three times what this country spends on all of science save biological medical science.
Robyn Williams: And so it’s a monetary reason only is it, or do you have other reservations about that?
Doug Osheroff: Well, I mean I question how much we’re going to learn. In fact I think it’s being sold as a science mission but in fact I think no one thinks of it as a science mission. It is to boost the spirits of the American public and stuff, and I think that the years when that would work are vastly long gone. I mean, the Apollo program was a fantastic lift, it showed both the resilience of our economy – Apollo was spending 4% of the Federal Budget – and it showed the fantastic technology we could come up with.
Robyn Williams: Isn’t it incredible, that was 32 years ago when Apollo finished?
Doug Osheroff: Yeah, and it’s amazing it doesn’t seem like that the technology for putting pieces of mass in orbit has improved significantly. Whereas if you look at what’s happened to robotic technologies, man, they have just really, really blossomed. And I think that that will continue because in fact the attempt frequency is very high, whereas the attempt frequency for developing new transport systems for human beings, obviously it’s like every 30 years or something like that so you don’t get chances to fine tune the technology or try new things out very often.
Robyn Williams: So if you think it’s a bad idea to go to Mars in the first place, presumably the idea that some people have of going there with a one-way ticket you would regard equally as not terribly bright.
Doug Osheroff: Well, I don’t think that makes any sense. My guess is that ultimately we would not do that. I cannot imagine what that is going to do for the human spirit when these guys are starting to die. It’s pretty bleak, and with no chance of getting back.
Robyn Williams: What about the prospects of going to the moon, George Bush suggested that should be a goal even if it’s not realisable until 2020?
Doug Osheroff: Well, we can certainly go to the moon, I just don’t see much reason for doing so. The only two arguments that I think you can make are: one, that if you put large telescopes on the moon you don’t have to worry about the problem with gyros that we have with the Hubble Space Telescope. I don’t think that’s a particularly good reason. The other side of that argument is in fact that the moon is a very dusty place and it’s very remote compared to low Earthorbit. The other reason is that if you are really going to Mars and you want to get some large amount of mass to shield the astronauts from solar flares, the cheapest place to get it is from the moon, because the moon has a relatively small gravitational potential energy minimum. So it’s cheaper to launch things off the surface of the moon than the surface of the earth.
Robyn Williams: It’s still going to take a huge amount of money, will that be the cost of real science.
Doug Osheroff: Of course. Scientists have always been concerned about human space flight because it’s always billed as being Science. The amount of science that actually comes out of it is remarkably small. I don’t know how much, you know, we get hurt by that. Van Allen did a report on effects of the shuttle system on, I don’t know if it’s either science or space science, but the conclusion was that it was largely negative and NASA managed to bury that report pretty well.
Robyn Williams: What about NASA itself with all these changes, the Presidential announcements and also the accidents and this tremendous shift in direction. How are their spirits, how are they coping as scientists let alone managers?
Doug Osheroff: Well, I talk to a few of these guys, I don’t talk to a lot of them and I think it is a very tumultuous time within NASA for sure. I mean, I’ve been talking to people that are involved in the return to flight effort implementing that recommendations that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board made, but I really have no idea what the overall impact is. I mean, it seems to me that there are so many open questions left. It looks to me very likely that we’re going to shut down the shuttle program before we actually have an alternative launch vehicle ready.
Robyn Williams: A final question, back to your actual work in physics – what are you doing now?
Doug Osheroff: Well, a lot less than I wish I were…I mean, ever since I agreed to be on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. I think I had no impression of how much of a distraction and how much of my time that would take. I’ve got three groups, everything I do is in ultra low temperature physics. It’s certainly not something that’s likely ever to be done in orbit I would say, although I actually do have a small grant from NASA to do a terrestrial-based study to see if, in fact, a certain aspect of studies of superfluid Helium-3 which would really test some of the fundamental theories of physics would be something that one could do in orbit, and you know, I think that’s something which is still valuable and we hope we’ll get an answer to that question.
Robyn Williams: Doug Osheroff won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1996. So, a one-way trip to Mars…what does enthusiast Richard Zare say about that?
Richard Zare: A one way ticket that you never come back, is that the idea of a one way ticket? Well, I think you might have you know the ability to go in both directions in time, but certainly it’s possible that people will start by moving that way.
Robyn Williams: Well, in fact, the risks of going there and back are so much greater that perhaps staying there is a safer proposition?
Richard Zare: I would agree with that to start with. It’s just those people who came to the New World didn’t plan on coming back to the Old World when they left for the New World.
Robyn Williams: That’s right indeed, but when it comes to spreading the human species throughout the far distances – and they’re enormous distances to the planets – do you think we can make anything other than a kind of token foothold in even you know the distant future? In other words, getting the human population from Earthto somewhere else, it would be a gigantic proposition.
Richard Zare: Well, certainly it’s right now a daunting task and it looks in some sense even beyond what is reasonable, but I expect in time we will do that. At the moment, it’s hard for us to conceive of going to another star, for example, because it’s so far away. If we can learn to travel close to the speed of light – or even some people talk about faster than the speed of light, though I don’t understand that – but there are people who talk about worm holes and the rest, and we have much to learn about the universe I feel, so I don’t want to discount this totally. Then of course such matters become possible but even moving away from Earthwill be interesting.
Robyn Williams: Richard Zare. Well, here’s one fellow who would go with a one way ticket. Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and now Master of Trinity College, Cambridge on the Science Show a while back.
Martin Rees: Just as we are all fascinated with the exploits of present day explorers, we would be even more fascinated by the first people who can establish communities far beyond the Earth. This may happen within a century and when that happens that would be an epochal event in the history of life just as it was when the first sea creatures crawled onto dry land. So I think in a cosmic perspective it would be an important stage and evolution and once that happens then of course it’ll mean that these species, as such, is invulnerable to the worst that can happen to the Earth and you can imagine, although we don’t know how, that somehow life could then spread through the rest of the galaxy and the may prove to have been of cosmic importance as the originator of that.
But as I say, that will only be a cosmically important event, if there’s not already life out there, and that’s why in parallel with these efforts I’m in favour of all possible searches for evidence of life elsewhere in the universe; simple life on the other planets and of course evidence for signals from intelligent life beyond.
Robyn Williams: If you were 18 again would you go?
Martin Rees: I think I would and I’d almost go with a one-way ticket, I think.
Robyn Williams: A one way ticket.
Martin Rees: I think there would be many people who would go to Mars with a one way ticket, I’d be one of them.
Robyn Williams: You’re a very brave man, thank you very much. Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees at Cambridge. So who’s behind this idea of a one-way ticket? Why, none other Paul Davies, friend of Sir Martin’s and Professor at the Astrobiology Centre at Macquarie University. Paul.
Paul Davies: The first think is that it cuts the cost enormously. It doesn’t cut it in two, it’s not like buying a rail ticket that you know costs you half to get there as to get back. Because going to Mars and coming back again, bringing the astronauts back again means that you’ve got to take the fuel and provisions and all the rest of it for the return journey. You can cut all of that out, you also cut out the risk of the takeoff and landing from the return part and when you take into account that going to Mars, unlike going to the moon which is just a few days, going to Mars is a venture that’s going to take a number of years, first of all the flying time, the time on the surface, getting back, that the case for bringing the astronauts home seems to be really rather slim. Anybody who’s prepared to take the risks and wants to go that much to Mars can jolly well stay there.
There are plenty of volunteers. Actually, Martin Rees is the first male volunteer; almost all the volunteers that I’ve found have all been young and female, but there will be people prepared to do it – and this is not a suicide mission, I’m not advocating like a one way trip to the moon where you’ve got oxygen for three days and that’s it. There is no particular reason why we couldn’t go supplying the astronauts on Mars for many years, every two years there’s a sort of window of opportunity to send supplies. These can be done in a cheap and cheerful way like we’ve send recently with the Mars landers, parachutes and air bags and so on, you don’t have to have a retro-rocket and setting things down gently as you would if you were coming back again. And if you picked volunteers with fairly reduced life expectancy anyway, say somebody who might reasonably expect on Earth to live for say another ten years and you said, well your life expectancy maybe reduced to five years as a result of this, I don’t think that’s a terrible sin. A hundred years ago people were prepared to go off trekking across Antarctica and so on in the full expectation that they may not come back at all, they would simply die in the effort and even if they did come back, they would have reduced life expectancy, reduced because of the health damage and so on. And these expeditions were sponsored not only by governments but by scientific societies as well.
And today we’re squeamish about this sort of thing, Oh you know, we couldn’t possibly do that, couldn’t possibly expose astronauts to that sort of risk. We’re quire happy for people to go down deep in the ocean or test a new aircraft and engage in all sorts of other activities that are more risky than what I’m suggesting here. And then some people in the name of adventure or sport will undertake huge risks, so I think the idea that we shouldn’t take risks is a silly one, the question is how should we view an expedition to Mars, is it smash and grab raid, we go there, we grab some rocks, come back – I can’t see the point of that. Or is it the beginning of a new phase of human colonisation of another planet. And I would see the first mission to Mars as the trail blazers for a permanent human presence on the red planet. And so these people who would be there on their own for maybe a few years would eventually be joined by others and new equipment would come and you’d build up a base and for a long time it would have to be supplied from Earth with most of the needs of the colonists, but over a period of some few hundred years it would become self-supporting, self-sufficient. They would make everything that they need from food to manufactured goods on the Martian surface and eventually they could be treated as a sort of lifeboat if anything absolutely dire happened here on Earth, for example, if we got hit by an asteroid and it wiped out humanity or if there was some killer plague or something, at least the flame of culture and civilisation would live on on another planet. So it’s worth doing in the long-term anyway – I can’t see why we can’t begin this process now.
Robyn Williams: What about living conditions on Mars? Would they be in any way far more hazardous than living on Earth?
Paul Davies: Bob Zubrin of the Mars Society has said, quite rightly, that Mars is the second safest place in the solar system after Earth. Generally speaking I’m not a fan of human beings going into space, I think that machines, robots and smart probes and so on can do the job better but there’s one place beyond Earth where human beings really could make a living and that is Mars. It’s got everything you need, it’s got for example, water which is crucial, but it’s also got carbon dioxide so using these you can make things like methane which could be used for fuel to run vehicles around, you’d need a nuclear reactor to supply the power to make this whole system work because solar panels are pretty hopeless on Mars. But the other think about Mars is that although it’s cold of course by human standards, by Earth standards, it’s not desperately cold, it’s not like the dark side of the moon at night. The temperature goes very low but you can insulate against it and the thin atmosphere also provides protection against small meteorites which would be really hazardous on the moon and so given these various conditions Mars is one of the few places that people could set up a permanent human presence on and it seems to me that if we’re going to accept the principle that we’re going to move beyond Earth one day, Mars is the obvious place to go.
Now some people don’t accept that principle, they say, well you know, what’s the point of going into space at all? We should just stay here on earth, solve all our problems here. But for dreamers like myself who think that human destiny is to go beyond the planet eventually Mars is the obvious first step.
Robyn Williams: You’ve said that going to Mars, staying there and coming back again would shorten one’s life – in what way?
Paul Davies: Oh yes, the risk of taking off from the surface of Mars and then the re-entry into Earth of course carries with it the prospect of imminent death. The exposure to radiation on the journey back is pretty bad news. Now, the radiation isn’t too thrilling on the Martian surface but at least you’ve got the ability to shield against it. So, the other point about Mars is that the duration of its day is very similar to that of Earth and the gravity is – what is it – 38% of that on the Earth’s surface, so it is low but not so worryingly low as would cause long term health problems. And you could grow food in situ, there’s not particular reason that all of the food would have to come from Earth. In the early days a lot of it would have to come that way but eventually you could set up your own market garden on the Martian surface and you could manufacture things like plastics and other simple goods that you would need, all this stuff wouldn’t have to come out from Earth. Eventually of course you would want to manufacture everything there.
Robyn Williams: It sounds so attractive, why do you think only young women want to go?
Paul Davies: I suppose they hold the future, whether it’s space or here on Earth, it seems to me that a lot of the energy and drive these days is coming from young women. I think young men have taken a back seat.
Robyn Williams: You mean they’ve gone wimpish?
Paul Davies: Whether it’s that or whether,you know the way I look at it is that men have been running the world for 100,000 years it’s about time women did it. If they want to go to Mars then I’d be there cheering, I’m not going.
Robyn Williams: No, you’re not, the young women could set up the station and maybe when then they’ve got things organised young men could be sent along when things are made safe.
Paul Davies: If we’re to think seriously about the make up of a crew, I know it sounds a bit boring but I would suggest two middle-aged married couples would be the ideal thing. And they should all be scientists of course, because the prime motivation for doing this is that not only would they be the trail blazers of a new world, setting up a colony on another planet so they go down in the history books, but they could also some fantastic science whilst they were there and I think that would be a great attraction for a lot of people.
Robyn Williams: Well finally Paul, you’ve put the word out, do you think there are any takers yet?
Paul Davies: There are absolutely, I’ve seen some hands go up but yet waiting for a male hand.
Robyn Williams: Yes, but I don’t think takers of people willing to go but authorities, governments willing to back such a scheme.
Paul Davies: The problem with trying to sell this scheme for example to NASA, and I think NASA is probably at the moment the only the organisation that would seriously think about a permanent human presence on Mars, is that after the shuttle disasters, I mean, the general short of climate of conscious and policy paralysis they’re not going to be taking a bold initiative like this. The difficulty is trying to sell the idea of a one- way mission to the general public. Most people react with horror because they think, well, what we’re actually asking people to do is effectively commit suicide, go on a suicide mission. But it’s not that, it’s the establishment of a permanent human presence. And of course there are risks but they would be risks but there would be risks involved there going and coming back. So I think it’s going to be difficult and I would probably suggest that we would look to one of the emerging space powers, say China, as having the necessary nerve and political clout and of course many Chinese people are smaller and lighter and they would be the obvious people. So I would be all in favour of sending middle- aged to elderly oriental ladies. In terms of the payload they would be best and maybe in terms of the science they would be pretty good.
Robyn Williams: And he is serious, despite the amusement.
Guests on this program:
Prof Richard Zare
Sir Martin Rees
The Mars Society
NASA – Space Shuttle
Presenter: Robyn Williams
Producer: Polly Rickard