Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
RM: And this week I’m talking to you directly. The podcast audience, which I like to call “The 99th Percentile”- and not the radio people because I took a week off the radio show just to do some other work and catch up on some things. But this is actually a piece that I really want to present to you because it’s an older piece I did about a year and a half ago for a tech show pilot that never got picked up. So the pilot its self only got heard by about fifteen to twenty people. But I really love this piece! I put a lot of effort into it and I liked it and a lot of my job, in general, is to pilot shows and to work on new things and sound design new programs. But the consequence of that is sometimes you make radio that isn’t on the radio, which is weird. And so this is one of those pieces. What makes it so appropriate is this actually represents a design problem, and the problem, if you see it as a problem or a design challenge, is “how do we get humans on Mars?” There are certainly technological solutions to this problem. There are solutions that involve a lot of will power and money maybe, but there’s also some out of the box thinking that might come into play. Some of the information in the piece is a little old- so it’s about a year and a half old, there used to be a Constellation Project, which was the Moon to Mars program that got scrapped by Obama when the world ran out of money. And I think that’s about it, but most of it is still pretty relevant and I think it’s actually quite enjoyable to listen to. So I hope you enjoy it too. So this is the 99% Invisible this week, it’s called ‘One Way Ticket to Mars.’
[“10, 9, ignition sequence start”]
RM: We can get to Mars. That’s easy. To break earth’s gravity and hurdle towards the red planet is totally doable. The science fiction part, the tech problem NASA says will take four decades to solve, is how to get back. You can’t carry enough fuel for a round trip. It’s too heavy. The Mars astronaut will have to make new fuel up there. Literally. Dig a mine on Mars. Harvest minerals. Whip up a nuclear reactor. Assemble rocket parts. Not easy. But if you really want to go to Mars, like now–if you can’t possibly wait any longer– James McLane has another plan.
James McLane (JM): I think what we should have is a short program, possibly a ten-year program, like the Apollo Program, where we would actually develop the equipment and land one person on Mars and we would keep that person re-supplied. The prime thing that makes this feasible is that we don’t plan on bringing this person back.
RM: I’m going to let that sink in for a second. Alrighty.
RM: McLane is now an oil and gas pipeline engineer, but for over twenty years, he worked for NASA on the shuttle safety systems on the international space station. And though he no longer has anything to do with space, he is still a man on a mission.
JM: I began to be disturbed that there were options as far as space travel to other planets that NASA wasn’t considering. I brought up in a technical meeting once, a guy was giving a presentation about Nasa’s plans for the future
RM: He raises his hand and says to this guys “Why not send one person one way?” One person because it cuts down on the weight and supplies to a manageable level. And one way, because getting him back is really really hard.
JM: He was just astonished that anyone would even mention such a thing. It sounded almost immoral. But the more I thought about this, the more I realized that it was actually probably the only way that we could see this thing happen in our lifetime, with the current generation here on earth. Because all of the other schemes that I read about involved developing exotic equipment. It’s going to take fifty years.
RM: You could call it a suicide mission. And many people have. McLane says it’s really no more of a suicide mission than the early Vikings making their way to North America. But I think it’s really no more of a suicide mission than life itself. Our Mars explorer would be going to live out a life on Mars, a dramatically shortened and unbelievably harsh life- but a life nonetheless.
JM: Well it wouldn’t be pleasant.
RM: That’s putting it mildly.
JM: It would be, I guess like living in a submarine. You would probably live in a habitat that was covered with dirt, you know. So you would only go outside occasionally. The conditions would be so dangerous.
RM: Mars has a poisonous low-pressure atmosphere, so your space suit better work. Forever. But that’s assuming that you can leave your base at all. Because Mars is also home to the solar system’s largest dust storms, that can cover the entire planet for months. And if anything breaks, you’re toast. Or more accurately, you’re a popsicle, because it can get down to 190 degrees below zero. Then there’s the cancer-causing cosmic radiation.
[“We have a problem”]
RM: You better hope not!
RM: And it’s only a suicide mission from the astronaut’s perspective. The problem is that for NASA, it’s more of a homicide mission. And that’s a little harder to sell to Congress. But explorers get it. Mr. Second-Man-On-The-Moon himself, Buzz Aldrin, says the one-way trip is the way to go. Do you really think you’d have trouble getting volunteers for the greatest adventure in history?
JM: Right now the space shuttle has been demonstrated to be an extremely, extremely dangerous vehicle. But people are standing in line to get a chance to fly on the fastest thing on the planet. People are willing to take that risk for the chance to do something remarkable. This person is going to be more than someone to just go down in history- this person will be like an Adam or Eve type figure. A legendary figure.
RM: Plus, I have to admit. There is something about it that captures the imagination. A doomed, lone explorer, in tiny, metal tube, sending out daily transmissions back home. It would be poetic and beautiful. And kind of inspiring. And horrible and macabre. It would be riveting. And it’s probably never going to happen.
Chris McKay (CM): I think that’s a non-starter from NASA’s point of view. We’re not going to send astronauts to Mars without the capability for them to come back.
RM: That’s Chris McKay. Dr. Kill-joy.
CM: I’m the deputy program scientist of the Constellation activity and Constellation is NASA’s return to the Moon on to Mars human exploration program.
RM: So he’s actually planning NASA’s manned missions to Mars.
CM: Well, personally, I wouldn’t want to go on a one-way mission. And also I like the idea that we bring Mars into the sphere of human activity, which means we go and come and we go and come. I don’t see why we have to surrender to the technological challenge and say “okay this is impossible, we can’t do it.” I think that’s a cop-out. What we oughta do is say “okay, let’s build better rockets. Come on you guys, engineers, get to work. I want a round trip.”
RM: Chris McKay and NASA think we should go to Mars once we’re ready to establish a long-term base. Something like the Antarctic base, where there are humans there year-round, coming and going and doing research.
CM: To boldly stay- paraphrasing Star Trek- that becomes the pacing item. But in a sense, what’s the rush, why do we need to rush to Mars?
RM: The author of the one-way plan, James McLane, is 64, so for him, there is a rush.
JM: Well, some of these questions would be nice to answer in my lifetime. I’d like to know the answers. I’d like to know the answers.
CM: People say “well, don’t you want to see it in your lifetime?” To which I respond, well I’m not that old. [laughs] Maybe I will live 40 more years! Unlikely but, hey, I go running every day and I don’t smoke- the fact that it’s in my lifetime or not is really not an important consideration. NASA shouldn’t make its decisions based on the lifetimes of its current scientists and engineers.
RM: And of course that makes practical sense. But isn’t there something to this idea of a bold, Apollo-like, ten-year mission to excite the imagination, no matter what the cost? Shouldn’t we capture the thrill of the space race?
CM: The way you win a race is you exert yourself fully during the race, even if it means that after the race, you collapse into a blob at the end of the finish line. And that’s what we did at Apollo. We exerted enormous effort, we took our best people, pushed them as hard as we could, and we won the race, and then we collapsed at the end. But the political context for space exploration now is very different than a race. The Apollo precedent is not the precedent to follow here.
RM: And that’s a big problem. Apollo was NASA’s golden age. When anyone talks about returning NASA to its former glory, that’s the model they point to. Except for a small blip of interest during the Space Camp craze of the 80s, the shuttle era of NASA only grabbed the attention of the world when there was a horrible, horrible tragedy.
RM: James McLanes asks you to imagine nightly broadcasts from the Mars base. Peering with an astronaut over the edge of a crater five times deeper than the grand canyon. Hearing stories from the base of a volcano so tall it nearly reaches space its self. We’d have front-row seats to the greatest and coolest hail-Mary pass in the history of humankind. One man, one way McLane says, fulfills the bold and inspiring NASA of his youth. But he can feel it, and Mars, slipping away.
JM: They won’t even study the option. If they set up a small task force or an office to study this particular option, I believe that would be obvious, just from the technical studies, that this is the only way it could be done relatively low-cost and in a relatively short period of time. All of the other schemes for going to Mars, there’s no way it’s going to happen anytime in the near future, if forever.
RM: Forever is too long. Whether we follow the one-way plan or not. Maybe more than out-of-the-box thinking, what we really need is another country to come along and start talking trash and goad us back into the space race. China, I’m looking at you.
RM: I’m Roman Mars, the guide to the modern world.
RM: So that’s the 99% Invisible for this week. Originally broadcast into the headphones of some muckity-muck at a public radio production and distribution company, who did not like it enough to put it on the radio. It was good wasn’t it?! They don’t know what they’re talking about. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it. I get to stretch my legs a little bit this week, longer than four and half minutes- everyone happy now? Thank you very much. It’s not like I want the shows to be four and a half minutes long…that’s how much time I have! That’s all I have on the radio. So maybe it’ll be longer someday but I kind of like it. It’s a challenge. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it. I’m Roman Mars, that was 99% Invisible. Take care, and I’ll talk to you next week.
Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.