Time to stop science and start engineering on Mars?

So NASA's Space Shuttle has flown for the last time - and the USA is set to wait maybe more than a decade before it can send humans into Earth orbit again. Do we need to?

We're now told the universe is probably going to carry on expanding - so there's no need to rush. In a few billion years the Sun will explode, but that still gives us lots of time. Mars - and space - are not going to go away. We might go away first, of course, if a big enough asteroid hits or a supervolcano blows.

Life on Earth started anaerobically, then made the leap to an oxygen-rich environment and colonised the waters of the Earth. It took billions of fish and millions of mudflats for something to crawl ashore - and almost everyone got left behind. At each of these stages life moved on into a new environment, transformed. Homo sapiens is not the final stage in this progression - just the current one. It's time for it to happen again - for carbon-based organised life to give way to silicon-based organised life. This time, of course, we will be the ones left behind.

And here we sit, naïvely scanning nearby stars for Earth-like planets. Why? We can never get there, and there's no proof they're the only places life can start. They've probably got tenants anyway.

We should accept that we are the 'billions of fish' (v.s.), give up our own aspirations and help our successors with their task of colonising the universe.

Even fleeting consideration of a manned mission to Mars ought to tell us something obvious. Hard vacuum, long-term weightlessness and high radiation levels are serious issues for homo sapiens. So is life support - the food, water and fuel for a six-man return expedition would weigh 15,000 tonnes - more than lifted by the entire Shuttle programme. Both interplanetary space and Mars itself are cold places - keeping warm is a major part of the issue. And the Shuttle cost a fortune - not least in terms of human life, at over one death per ten missions. We're not designed to leave our atmosphere, just as the anaerobic bacteria wouldn't last too long on the viewing gallery of the Empire State Building. Even sneezing presents special problems in space. Manned missions and sample return missions suffer from the same issues - ludicrous cost and tiny, localised sample sizes. If there's some reason the MSL can't properly analyse a sample, build one that can and send that - it will be cheaper and we get a free MSL.

And Newt Gingrich wants the Moon to be the American Rockall. It's fatuous to think of the Moon as a 'staging post' - it's a gravity well with no atmosphere for parachute braking. Every time we've been there we've left over two-thirds of the spacecraft behind and used all the fuel to get away. There's nothing there that's useful to us anyway - there's absolutely no point in us going back to the Moon.

We need to iterate. What we do is not repopulate the ISS but mechanise it - develop our space-faring successors in the environment they will have to live in - radiation-rich, cold hard vacuum. Maybe the Japanese are starting a stealth attempt. Without humans and held at a lower temperature, the ISS would be power-rich. A rack-mounted processor could do the thinking, and something like a remote-controlled blimp could do the work. But no need for buoyancy and no limits on mass - who cares if it takes hours to move about with its little fans? One of the problems we've solved in the last few decades is software updating - what used to take a small army of high priests weeks goes unnoticed on our televisions and smartphones. Even NASA's MSL flew to Mars using different software from that used for exploration.

And there's a minor incentive to prepare for maintaining the JWST - any missions like the Hubble repairs will have to be unmanned. Earth-Moon Lagrange 2 is a sod to get to, very very cold and quite hard to get away from - that's why we chose it. Indeed, the exhaust of any departing vehicle might contaminate the telescope. Send a robot and leave it attached - any propellant left over will come in handy too. If JWST is not currently designed for robotic docking, someone has some work to do. And the JWST may even need refueling for an extended mission one day - solar panels don't work very well at EML-2 and 238Pu16O2 has a short half-life.

The same applies to both Mars rovers and orbiters - they should all be modular and use common subsystems to allow for robotic repair and upgrade. We might one day have robot space probe refueling and service stations in orbit around both Earth and Mars.

The current GRAIL programme simply wouldn't be possible with humans aboard the spacecraft - even our heartbeats would disturb its instruments.

So mechanise the ISS. Remove the humans and replace them with autonomous machines. It's an ideal testbed - complex but close enough for a Soyuz to reach if there's a serious problem. Our concepts of what intelligent machines will look like has changed over the years - C3PO is a 1930s concept repopularised by the Star Wars throwback. There's now nothing wrong with getting around on wheels - we're installing wheelchair ramps everywhere. Not that robo sapiens will need to share our space - our society will be of no interest to them and we're unlikely to see them walking down the street. They'll be in space or deep under the oceans. They won't look like us - and they very likely won't look much like each other. Take a look at a construction site - not every vehicle is a bulldozer. Animal life on Earth is incredibly diverse - beetles especially - and mechanical life will have to be just the same. How long will it be until we add another domain to the phylogenetic tree of life - Mechanica?

For all practical purposes, they'll be immortal. Their memories will not die with them and they won't need nurturing or education. Robo sapiens will wake up with PhDs. And they won't be interested in history lessons - of whether Mars could once have supported life. They probably won't be curious in the sense that we are - knowledge for knowledge's sake. They won't care who made the Antikythera mechanism - they'll be on Mars looking for smeltables. And a source of fuel.

Descendants of IEEE 802.11, Bluetooth and NFC will replace speech and robo sapiens won't turn "Send reinforcements, we're going to advance" into "Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance". Every robo sapiens will know at every instant what every other robo sapiens knows. They'll never understand the Comedy of Errors. And robo sapiens won't say "Hello" or "How do you do?" - they'll say XYZZY!

Robo sapiens would have one great trait that homo sapiens doesn't - infinite patience. So it takes 50,000 years to cross the gulf to the next star? Time for a nap. Time is one of the massive cosmic scales, and one to which we humans are as unsuited as hard vacuum and temperatures close to absolute zero.

If you don't need food, water, oxygen, warmth and a return transport system, and you can withstand solar radiation and high G forces, mining on Mars becomes easier. The minerals you need are easier to find - who cares if there's water at the poles? Who needs water? In fact, without water and free oxygen, corrosion problems go away. Robots don't even need clean laundry. This redefines 'habitable planet' to mean anything with a solid surface and a nearby star.

Using the optimum Hohmann Transfer, there is a launch window to Mars every 26 months and the trip takes about 9 months - that's a one to three year wait for any critical spare parts, not including mission preparation. It's a long time to wait if you're consuming fuel, food, water and oxygen all that time - but a machine can just switch itself into standby mode. There's another reason a Mars mission wouldn't just be 'Apollo on steroids' - Mars has no free return trajectory. The Moon missions were designed so that the spacecraft, absent any other influence, would sling-shot back to Earth. A feature of great utility to Apollo 13 but not available to any Mars mission, which would be forced to wait 459 days for a return window.

We shouldn't be shy of the robotic approach - we've been quite successful right from the beginning. Voyager 1 is now so far from Earth that round-trip radio signals take a day and a half - Opportunity has been roaming on Mars 35 times longer than intended. Cassini looks like operating at least nine years beyond its original end of life.

It looks as if someone at least is thinking this way - the current NASA budget proposals provide for restarting the production of Plutonium 238 - essential for long missions distant from the sun. Maybe the USA is hoping that Iran will produce some.

Future missions will be even more challenging. Just as the JWST will only be repairable by robots, so will future Mars probes. These missions are becoming more capable and more costly - it's time to think of rovers and especially orbiters as long-term assets. One strategy would be to overlap them - wait until the MSL fails, and send the next mission to repair it, refuel it, and then continue with its own tasks. Repeat this enough times and the surface of Mars will be populated. We'll have to land them close enough together, though - hard to argue when scientists want variety. One idea would be a reusable Skycrane - each MSL takes enough propellant to fuel its own descent, the return of the Skycrane to orbit, a new parachute and a set of explosive bolts. We need to do at least something - the MSL as landed represents only 23% of the mass that arrived in Mars orbit.

The idea of bringing back the MSL is downright ludicrous. Refined and worked alloys landed on Mars are worth vastly more than gold is on Earth. Pathfinder/Sojourner (270kg), the Viking landers (600kg each), the Spirit and Opportunity rovers (185kg each, plus their landing platforms), Phoenix (350kg), even the EU's Beagle will be immensely valuable sources of materials until we get smelting from ore working on Mars. The first Mars workshops will have to brush up and recycle their dust, just as goldsmiths and cigarette factories do on Earth today.

Here's a crazy idea - at the ISS' end of life, crash it into Mars. It would create a massive scrapyard of refined and worked metals - immensely useful until the technology to produce them exists there.

This wouldn't be a trivial undertaking - the ISS is truly massive at around 450,000kg (but still only 1/30th the mass of a postulated manned mission) and it's in a very low orbit - serious rocketry would be needed to shove it into an Interplanetary Transport Network orbit. But with no-one on board, it doesn't matter how long it takes and we don't need to land it or even slow it down on arrival.

A greater hurdle might be legal - forward contamination would be massive - humans have been shedding skin cells, breathing, coughing and sneezing in the ISS since 1998. Even flying sterilising robots armed with chemicals incompatible with terrestrial life on the trip wouldn't fully solve the problem. There must come a time when the scientists have had their chance - their mission objectives now read more like ever more desperate attempts to find something to do in order to justify their budgets. It's time for science to give way to engineering on Mars.

It may be, of course, that we won't get the choice. Over time and even on Earth we're gradually building more capable robotic systems. We sometimes dismiss them as trivial - Apple's Siri, Google's self-driving car or IBM's Watson. But the trend is only going in one direction - one day these systems will be significantly more intelligent and capable than the very best of our elected officials. Or the Pentagon. What then?

The major effect of the oil running out (not as soon as that article claims) will not be the end of package holidays but global famine - we are incredibly dependent on fertilisers to feed the human race. As a species, we are far too numerous and too profligate with energy resources. Over time, that will have to be corrected.

The Meaning of Life? There isn't one - it's a chemical accident. Boringly, everything we see is explained by chemistry and physics. And everything we can't see doesn't exist. The interesting issue is whether organized life can proceed from here to colonise the universe - and maybe one day influence it.

Finally two quotes. From the Guardian:

We'll never be able to get a man standing on the surface of Venus, but when it comes to exploring Mars a single human will be able to do the work of hundreds of robots.

Not borne out by the track records of Spirit and Opportunity, both of which stayed on Mars and made more observations than any human could have done. And no human would have the patience for Dawn's mission. Another quote, this time from Arthur C. Clarke in Hazards of Prophecy:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Here's a thought as whacky as any Asimov Foundation thought - maybe millions of years from now our silicon descendants will revere Earth as 'the home of Google'. For them, by that time, it may well have the status of a god. Better earned than any of the gods of our own prehistory - instead of worshipping their creators, they will know of our fragility, painfully short lives and low intellects. And wonder at how we created Google. Perhaps homo sapiens will one day get to Mars. As pets. Statistically, the lifetime of a species is one to ten million years.

Until then, all that most of the human race can do is drive the technology. Keep buying the smartphones, people.

Unless, of course, you're very rich indeed. And you know how to find asteroids made of platinum. Plenty of iron and nickel up there, of course - but there's plenty down here already.

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