Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Book Recommendation: "Mission To Mars: An Astronaut's Vision of Our Future In Space", by Michael Collins

First, full disclosure, I'm a bona-fide space nut. Since I was kid watching the launches of Mercury, Gemeni and Apollo spacecraft in the sixties and seventies, I was hooked on the idea of space flight and exploration. I find the idea inherently interesting.

Still, an interesting subject does not necessarily make a great book. For instance, I recently purchased George Monbiot's examination of causes and cures of global warming, "Heat," because I kept having to return it to the library without having finished it. The subject is fascinating, yet Monbiot manages to take an important subject and make it ponderous. Unfortunately, content-wise, it's probably the best book on the subject, so I purchased it.

Happily, this was not the case with "Mission To Mars;" it is anything but ponderous. Mr. Collins, who participated in the first manned moon mission (he flew in the Command Module, orbiting around the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took humanity's first steps on the moon). The book, published in 1990, examined the possibilities and challenges in mounting a manned expedition to Mars.

The fact that the book was published before both the collapse of the Soviet Union, the destruction of a second space shuttle and the building of the International Space Station actually makes it more interesting and perhaps, oddly, more relevant. Collins points out the limitations of the Space Shuttle and the problems with the United States' failure to build a "dumb" booster-- a rocket platform that can launch huge loads, rather than the relatively small ones that the Space Shuttle is capable of. He examines the pros and cons of partnering with the Soviet Union in the endeavor-- mostly the technical, rather than the political problems. He is clearly critical of the idea of the International Space Station, as far as pulling resources away from other priorities.

I would argue that the building of the International Space Station has allowed NASA and other space agencies to learn about some of the "nuts and bolts" problems in long manned space missions and allowed them to examine the physiological problems of human beings living in a zero gravity environment for prolonged periods. He examines the latter at length, pointing out that at the time, 1990, the Soviet Union had a great deal more experience with this through the Mir space station, but that the Americans chose not to try to get the Soviets to share what they'd learned.

Collins examines various problems of long-- multiyear-- space missions, which a Mars mission would entail. An obvious one is power-- how would one power the rocket, and how would one provide the huge amount of electricity needed for such a mission. He suggests that technologies that we've had a lot of experience with-- simple rocket power for the spacecraft and a combination of fuel cells and small nuclear reactors for electricity. He does not shy away from the human factors; how would one deal with physical and psychological problems months or even a year away from earth? He suggests that every crew member would have a preemptive appendectomy early on in their training. How would one handle, though, a psychological problem? Even choosing a crew that remained healthy-- can you think of one person you could stay in one house with for two years without even being able to step outside and cool off for a few minutes? He suggests that the crew be comprised of couples. As someone who has been divorced twice, I had to chuckle-- that might raise more problems than it solved.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is an extended depiction of a mission. Mechanical breakdowns (including plumbing), cultural and crew conflicts play into the mission.

One thing that Collins is adamant about is that he feels that a return to the moon is a waste of time. He takes a "been there, done that" attitude. I couldn't help feel that a little bit of sour grapes played into that view-- that he had to sit and watch his two crewmates make history while he flew overhead. With this in mind, I was a little confused recently when Collins and his two crewmates were critical about President Obama's recent shift in the space program. Reading about the changes, I almost wondered if President Obama had read the book; his shift of focus is to an eventual Mars mission, and the development of a "dumb" booster to launch crews and equipment into orbit, along with the use of the Orion space capsule as a means to reduce the reliance of NASA on Russia to launch crews.

One of the goals President Obama set last month for the US space program was a manned flight to Mars by the mid-2030's. I grew up in the decade that President John Kennedy declared we would send a man to the moon by the end of, the 1960's. If we do manage to mount a manned mission to Mars by that time, I have a pretty good chance to be alive then-- I'll be in my seventies. One of my earliest memories were of our first steps into space. Perhaps some of my last will be our first steps on another planet. Collins' book, which is quite readable, renewed that hope, making it clear that we've cleared the technical, political, economic-- and human-- hurdles before, and we can do it again.

1 comment:

SkylersDad said...

This sounds like required reading for us space geeks, thanks for the tip!