September 4th, 2009
This is the question that Lawrence Krauss asked few days ago in a New York Times op-ed. He suggested that quite a lot of engineer and astronaut types would be willing to take a trip to Mars, to stay, without expectations of a return voyage home.
This plan has two significant merits.
First, it makes the mission simpler and cheaper, at least when it comes to some hard physical constraints involving radiation shielding and fuel. We can gamble against the sun on a short trip to the moon, but a longer trip to Mars is a bad bet.
Second, the manned space program is sold, at least philosophically and long-term, as a step to colonizing other worlds and getting our eggs out of only one basket (Earth). So, why not start having people try to live on other planets? The Apollo-style program of visit, leave, and stop returning is in some ways worse than not going at all, at least for this long-term goal.
Krauss worries that the public may not have enthusiasm for a manned Mars program if the astronauts are not expected to return. Whether or not they successfully live any length of time on Mars, it may feel like a death sentence and be bittersweet rather than triumphant. I agree that this is a worry.
I’ve given some thought to applying for astronaut in the past, and one of my college professors actually did become an astronaut, so these issues are not too unfamiliar to me. My first novel Star Dragon featured a space voyage so long it was in some respects a one-way ticket into the future, with little expectation of the ship’s crew returning to a familiar world ever again.
Personally, I think I’d need something extra like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, when the aliens who kidnap him let him pick the woman of his dreams (Valerie Perine, in the movie version) to share his exile from Earth.
So how about it? Would you go?