If NASA is ever going to put boots on Mars (and possibly other alien worlds), it won’t happen by just deciding to blast a rocket off to the Red Planet one day. The question is whether a moon-orbiting space station is the right way to get one boot print closer.
With the ISS retiring in 2028, NASA needs a phase two, as NBC Mach observed. The space agency sees the Deep Space Gateway (DSG) in its future. Humans will fly beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time in 45 years to live on the DSG, where they will start building and testing the equipment and technology that will eventually launch Martian missions.
We can’t just land on Mars without hanging out far from Earth for any extended period of time. There is still too much that science doesn’t know about the long-term effects of deep space on physical and mental health—imagine spending a year on a floating space station with nowhere near the leg room of the ISS, a quarter million miles from Earth. But. It will be a launchpad for future missions we can now only imagine in sci-fi movies.
Exactly how necessary is all this? When a Nobel-winning theoretical physicist like Steven Weinberg insists that the ISS is nothing but space junk, you have to wonder.
"No important science has come out of it,” Weinberg told Space.com of the satellite that has been orbiting Earth since 1998, and thinks the same of the DSG though NASA begs to differ. “I could almost say no science has come out of it. And I would go beyond that and say that the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value."
Weinberg believes that only robotic missions like the Mars rovers have contributed anything useful to science. If humans actually walking on the moon (which he thinks of as more than a publicity stunt than anything else) made people gasp at their TV screens back in the ‘60s, it no longer has the same shock value. We’re exorbitantly expensive to keep alive out there, not to mention that we radiate too much heat and actually want to go home. Robots don’t come with those hangups.
Does NASA need to second-guess its priorities? There are obviously ethical implications to studying human survival in deep space when you’re exposing astronauts to more than just microgravity. There is no sunblock that can possibly guard against he harmful effects of high-energy cosmic rays and other kinds of killer radiation. Beaming help up from Earth would not be an option in a medical emergency. Any intervention from the home planet would take weeks to reach lunar orbit, and by then, things could happen that you might rather not want to think about.
So who do we listen to, the space agency or the super-physicist? Nobody is really sure, but one thing we can probably agree on for now is that NASA’s mentality of taking the Mars thing in stages is less scary than Elon Musk’s ambitions to make humans Martians even sooner.
(via NBC Mach)