tiny graphic of Mars

"Mars Missions"

Conducted by Scott Edelman

May 1993

participants: Geoffrey A. Landis, Robert Zubrin, Doug Beason

This is a transcript of a "Science Forum" conducted for the (now dead) magazine Science Fiction Age. Rather than have a science column, SF Age ran a feature called the "Science Forum", where we had a conversation with several scientists who are also science-fiction writers on a subject of interest to science fiction readers. This interview was conducted over an electronic link on the "Genie" computer network.

The Participants
Robert Zubrin is well known to Mars exploration experts as the originator of the "Mars Direct" plan for Mars exploration, as well as the author of the books The Case for Mars and Entering Space. Scientist and science fiction writer Geoffrey A. Landis is the author of the recent book Mars Crossing. And Colonel Douglas Beason, as well as being a science fiction writer, was a member of the Stafford team that was commissioned by NASA to come up with a plan for Mars exploration in response to (former) President Bush's "Space Exploration Initiative."

This Science forum appeared in May, 1993-- four years before the Mars Pathfinder mission announced NASA's return to Mars exploration.

Edelman: Why Mars? Why not Venus? What is it about Mars that has captured our imagination?

Zubrin: Mars is the planet that that may have been a home for life in the past, and the one that we can most readily transform to be a home for life , terrestrial life this time, again.

Landis: Venus is an unlivable hell. People may someday go there, but not in our lifetimes. Mars, at least, won't bake us. It will take life support, but we won't die immediately.

Edelman: Did we know that though, Geoff, when we first started dreaming of Mars?

Zubrin: We thought so.

Landis: I think when we started dreaming of Mars we thought it much more Earthlike than we now know.

Edelman: Doug?

Beason: Mars is really the only place around that is most like Earth -- and because of that, it will be able to tell us what might happen to Earth ... we can probably glean a lot of info about our past as well.

Edelman: When did we first start seriously considering going... as opposed to tying ourselves to swans and the like.

Landis: It has been a theme in SF for a long time, but Von Braun was one of the first to make engineering plans. He was inspired by a SF Book, "Auf Zwei Planeten" by Kurd Lasswitz, written in 1897.

Beason: Right now, with Vice President Gore having the environment as number one on his agenda, using Mars to learn about Earth makes sense politically. So the time seems ripe for going to Mars to learn the answers to those environmental questions, if nothing else.

Zubrin: Trips to Mars were envision with various degrees of realism in SF during the 1920s and 1930s, but the first really serious mission design was done by Von Braun in 1953.

Edelman: And what was his plan?

Landis: Huge fleets of winged, three-stage rockets assembling a Mars vehicle in orbit.

Zubrin: He envision a flotilla of winged ships driven by chemical rockets sand carrying a total expeditionary complement of 70

Edelman: And by what decade did he predict that technology would catch up with his plans?

Zubrin: He thought that the technology was more or less available, in the sense that no really futuristic technology was included.

Edelman: He thought he could do it, then?

Beason: It's not driven by technology - it's driven by political considerations (economic mostly) -- we probably could have gone in the late '60s, early 70s ... if WE WANTED TO. And that's the point.

Edelman: So the same thing that stopped us, stopped him?

Zubrin: Certainly. He drew up a more realistic plan in the late 1960s, identical in fact to the one adopted by the recent Synthesis group.

Landis: In 1972, the plan for NASA was, after the moon: on to Mars. Nixon killed it. He had a war to pay for.

Zubrin: It wasn't money though, it was really gross stupidity and a lack of any sort of vision, coupled with the desire to cut short the political accomplishment of his predecessors.

Edelman: How much closer are we today than Von Braun was back then?

Landis: We know a lot more about Mars. We know what resources are there we can use. We know what resources aren't there, too.

Beason: What we really need to do is to get the public back behind this -- get them excited again. Unless we can show the average "Joe Six-Pack" that his money is going for something other than Teflon or Tang (and it didn't even go for that!) then we won't have a motivating factor. And it has to be BIG -- like responding to a threat (the environment).

Landis: Ah, but how?

Edelman: Yes, how to motivate the American public -- and electorate?

Beason: Maybe if we start spreading the rumor that Mars dust gets you high, that will generate enough support for a mission . . . .

Landis: Mars dust probably won't get you high, but it will bleach your nose hairs!

Zubrin: And because we know a lot more about Mars, we can now design mission plans that make effective use of the resources we KNOW exist on Mars, namely its atmosphere. This makes it possible to design a much cheaper and more efficient mission than the Von Braun mega-spacecraft plans of 1953 and 1969.

Edelman: If I gave you airtime on the news, what would you say to motivate America?

Edelman: Anyone?

Zubrin: I would say that we are now in position to send humans to Mars within 10 years, and that we can do it with a fraction of NASA's total budget. That we, and not some future generation can snatch the honor of being the first pioneers of humanity's next world.

Edelman: Doug?

Beason: I'd start with a way to take advantage of the end of the Cold War. Now that it's over, it's time to turn our economy away from being fueled by the military-industrial complex (of which Mark & I are a part), to being fueled by a space based economy. And that means throughout -- from establishing "Land Grant" colleges that emphasize space to producing the professionals needed for an international effort. I would say that the urge to explore space is the most noble and selfless dream

What that means is a program on the order of the old Interstate Highway system -- producing jobs, fueling the economy, etc. Then we'd have a space centered GNP that would outlast political ups and downs (and games).

Edelman: Geoff? Motivation for America?

Landis: I would say that the urge to explore space is the most noble and selfless dream of humankind. If we do not go forward, to Mars and beyond, we will inevitably slide backward and be forgotten by history. H.G. Wells said it all: in the end, it will either be the stars; or nothing at all

Edelman: Well put. So then, what is the current state of the trip to Mars? Where do we stand? Bob?

Zubrin: Embrace it. All the fundamental technology needed to mount a Mars mission within a decade is in place.

Edelman: And that technology is...?

Zubrin: We need to do some hardware engineering, but Mars right now is in fact much closer than the Moon was in 1961 when Kennedy announced then Apollo program

Landis: In fact, I personally believe that the best way to go to Mars may well be with a technology that Bob Zubrin has been pushing: to use the resources of Mars themselves to make the fuel to return home.

Zubrin: No serious program of human exploration on Earth ever has been done without using the resources available in the environment to be explored.

Edelman: Good point

Beason: Bob, are we really? How long will it take to gear up the assembly lines for rockets big enough to get to Mars? I mean engines, tanks.

Zubrin: Doug; it only took 3.5 years to win WWII. It shouldn't take much longer than that to build a few rockets.

Landis: If we had the will to do so

Beason: But remember, we want more than a one shot deal. Anything that's not embedded in our infrastructure is "fair game" to be cut by the bean counters. We need something that they can't afford to cut -- not money-wise, but what we get from it. i.e., if we're getting gobs of science, employing hundreds of thousands of people, you know the politicians aren't going to cut that!

Edelman: Must it all begin with $$$$? Does it have to start with Clinton, Gore, and the next budget?

Landis: NASA's budget is less than 1% of the federal budget. Space is cheaper than a fleet of B-2's, and a lot more useful. And generates technology, and jobs!

Beason: But "Space" is not going to defend us -- you're talking about apples and oranges. By the way, that's NOT saying we need to build more B-2s!

Edelman: But what specifically must we do to get moving?

Zubrin: Infrastructure is to be minimized. Creating liabilities by inflating the cost of a program won't encourage anyone to provide the funds to sustain it. but by making full use of Martian resources right from the first mission, we can have a Mars base, soon, cheap, and one that is sustainable.

I've had a lot of experience talking to the general public, not just space cadets, about manned missions to Mars, and I can tell you that they support the idea enthusiastically. The problem is that there is a disconnect between the public and Washington.

Edelman: Will it take a Mars lobby?

Zubrin: We need to mobilize the support that is already there. That is why I suggested to the National space Society that they begin a nationwide petition drive in support of SEI.

Edelman: And what did they say?

Zubrin: They've done that, now it is up to all of us to do the work to insure that the campaign succeeds.

Edelman: What should we ask the readers to do?

Zubrin: You should print the petition in your magazine and ask them all to photocopy it and circulate it. We need 1 million signatures.

Beason: We need the vision to make those hard decisions.

Edelman: Bob, do you have a copy to send me?

Zubrin: Yes.

Edelman: We can run text with article

Zubrin: Great!

Beason: I want to make a quick point. Just because something is cheap doesn't mean that the congress, or the public will back it. Look at the SSTO (Single-Stage-To-Orbit) project -- it costs less than one (1) space shuttle flight, but yet no one in government is willing to back it.

That's because we're in a zero-sum game -- there's only so much $$$ to go around, and no one wants to give up their action.

Edelman: If we started tomorrow, what is the reasonable time table?

Zubrin: 5 years to develop the required heavy lift booster and other primary payload elements, launch an unmanned Earth return vehicle to Mars in 1999, humans to Mars in 2001. You could extend the schedule, but not too much as any overly extended program is guaranteed to fail.

Edelman: Good.

Landis: We have been, so far, talking about going to the surface of Mars.

There is also a strong case for going to, not just the surface, but the *moons* instead. There are three good reasons for this.

First. The lesson of Apollo was: when you reach your goal, your budget will be cut. So we, perhaps, shouldn't rush to Mars too fast. We should take our time and develop technology and experience while we're doing it.

Zubrin: If we take our time, we'll never get there. An airplane can't take off at 5 miles per hour, neither can a Mars program.

Edelman: #2, Geoff?

Landis: Second, Mars may have had life. Any manned landing will spread organics around the surface. It may be difficult, later, to figure out which are ours and which may be fossil remnants of what had been there long ago. If we explored by robotic probes operated from orbit, we could learn a lot without contaminating the planet.

Beason: It's probably already too late -- we're not certain the Russians completely sterilized their crafts. And we don't have the money to go robotics.

Zubrin:That makes no sense. if we went to Mars and found beagles, we would know they came from Earth. the same is true for any terrestrial species found there, bacteria included

Landis: Not clear. It is very difficult to identify bacteria. And there are many odd ones that are not well known.

Zubrin: No. They are specific species.

Landis: There are millions, possibly billions, of as-yet unknown species of bacteria; I'm not sure how easy it would be to tell if one is terrestrial or Martian in origin. But it's a trivial point. Let's move on.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, is that Deimos and Phobos are some of the most interesting objects (other than the surface of Mars) that we can get to. Should they only be a footnote in the rush to Mars? Or explored in their own right? Further, there is a very good case that Deimos has buried water 50 meters below the surface. Water, as we all know, is rocket-fuel ore.

Beason: Do you know it costs on the order of $1 billion for a Mars exploration probe? We can't have many of those and keep everyone's interest. We've got to make it so people get something more out of it than rocks, or "lines on an oscilloscope." That's why humans must go.

Landis: Last, it's a lot easier to do than to go to the surface.

Beason: That $1 Billion is for a robotic only.

Zubrin: The fact of the matter is that Phobos and Deimos are no more interesting than any of 3000 other asteroids. Mars is much more interesting. It's the lab that will tell us whether or not life is pervasive in the universe.

Landis: Deimos and Phobos have very little gravity. Going there is not like landing on a surface, which is hard, but like rendezvousing with a spaceship (easy).

It's a good thing to do in and of itself, and in the process of going to Deimos and Phobos we will check out the transfer ship part of the surface mission.

Beason: It's cheaper to go to an asteroid. A near-Earth one. Makes more sense, too.

Landis: Well, I doubt it would be significantly cheaper. But, I agree-- yes, we should do that too.

Edelman: Care to make any guesses on what we will find when we get there -- You know, the kind that will make you look silly when we really do get there...?

Beason: Elvis. I hear there's a big statue of him, blasting out "All Shook Up."

Zubrin: I think we will find evidence of past life, but only after an intensive search. People don't find dinosaur fossils on Earth during weekend expeditions, finding fossils microorganisms on Mars will be tougher.

Landis: That seems a good bet. We now believe that Mars was once warm and wet. If life evolved here, it might have done so there.

Zubrin: But I think we'll find them, because conditions on Mars and earth were similar for a longer period of time than it took life to appear on earth, and nature follow lawful processes.

Beason: That goes back to the environment -- use that as a reason to go.

Edelman: What sort of past life, Bob? Care to posit?

Zubrin: I think that it will be no more complex than bacteria, although that includes blue-green algae and stromatolite colonies of bacteria like organisms. Nucleated cells are unlikely. Macroscopic complex organisms even less so.

Landis: I think we may have to go there to learn what we can find.

Zubrin: We can't use the environment as a reason to go, because it's not the reason to go. We should go to Mars to explore, to find out about the place of life in the universe, and to begin the process of spreading life throughout the universe-our kind of life, that is.

Beason: Who's going to buy that?

Zubrin: The American people will buy that, because they have already bought that. People today expect that the "future" if it is a positive one, will see humanity as a multi-planet species.

Landis: But every thing you learn about one environment will tell you about another. You are aware that the "nuclear winter" scenario was developed after scientists studied the effect of dust in the atmosphere of Mars? When you have only one environment, it's hard to learn "what if" questions.

Zubrin: The problem is, they don't see NASA's program as leading there. Americans are willing to spend lots of money to get what they want. But they are not willing to wait.

Beason: I believe that, but we've got twenty percent of our nation either at or under the poverty line. What about the critics who say take care of this first? Educate the children? Rebuild our infrastructure? Give us health care?

Landis: All! Money spend on space is spent right here on Earth. There's no better investment, in technology or infrastructure or even jobs.

Zubrin: And certainly none better in promoting education.

Zubrin: The reason why people live better today than 500 years ago is not because of social programs, it's because of technological progress. And a great deal of that has been funded by governments, mostly for military purposes.

Edelman: Some of this should remain in, to see that even the experts disagree...

Landis: True. Science stagnates between wars, sad to say. But perhaps space could be the alternative to break the vicious cycle.

Beason: i.e. the space program was started as a response to the "Soviet threat"

Zubrin: Scott, it's your move.

Edelman: Would anyone care to comment on Mars fiction? What works, what doesn't? What's scientific, what's fantasy? Can you still read bad Mars fiction?

Zubrin Yes, I can. Burroughs or Bradbury are still fun.

Beason: Look at the recent number of Mars books ...

Landis: There has been a recent space of novels taking place on Mars, and the post-Viking Mars at that--

Beason: Bad fiction is bad no matter where it takes place

Edelman: Have you read "Danny Goes to Mars"?

Landis: Yes, amusing, although now outdated.

Edelman:At least the VP doesn't believe in canals any longer...

Landis: Kim Stanley Robinson's "Exploring Fossil Canyon" (a prelude to his Green Mars series) was an excellent post-Viking look at Mars in SF.

Zubrin: I think that SF still has a major role to play in helping get us to Mars. As Shelly said, poets are the legislators of mankind.

Edelman: Is there anything to fill in above? Did I skip over what you wanted to talk about?

Zubrin: We need to create a vision among the public, including those who eventually turn up in the seats of power, that a human civilization on Mars is an idea whose time has come.

Landis: If not us, who? If not now, when?

Zubrin: People need to know that history is not a spectator sport. The SF and pro-technology communities have more than enough clout to make a Mars mission happen, if we just decide to do so.

People need to stop moaning about the stagnation of our space program and start doing something about it.

Originally published in Science Fiction Age, May 1993

"Science fiction at its best" --Charles Sheffield
JPEG of novel cover
"... Geoffrey A. Landis has married the Zubrin-style bootstrap Mars expedition with the desperate, against-all-odds trek across a hostile wilderness toward a sole hope of survival. In Mars Crossing he's done an excellent job in a classic vein, and the result is a ripping good yarn."
--Tom Easton, Analog

Buy Mars Crossing

Page by Geoffrey A. Landis
Copyright 1993, 1998