Judge Dave Ryan thinks Sinatra is underachieving if he just wants to be flown to the Moon—he wants to go where it's really, really red.
For aeons, the Red Planet has held a unique grip on the imaginations of humans. So why aren't we there yet?
First Steps on Mars is a brisk and informative documentary made in 2000 covering the risks and rewards of a manned mission to the planet Mars. Although documentaries like this usually have the shelf life of an opened gallon of milk sitting on the porch, this one holds up surprisingly well, since very little has changed in the wake of the destruction of the Columbia and the complete halt to most manned spaceflight that followed.
What would it take to put a man (or woman) onto the red soil of Mars? Many things, the most important being "lots and lots and lots of money." For the most part, however, the proper technology exists today to build craft that could make the journey with a reasonable degree of safety. Few people are aware that NASA currently maintains a periodically-updated "reference mission" for Mars exploration—a complete and achievable plan, given current technology, for putting humans on the surface of Mars. This documentary shows us, via the use of a great deal of computer animation, the ins and outs of getting someone to Mars and back, drawing in large part on those NASA reference mission plans.
I was surprised to find this documentary confronting some touchy issues (for some Mars exploration proponents) head-on. For example, there's a strong argument that the re-exploration of the Moon should take priority over any Mars mission. First Steps on Mars calls in former Apollo 17 astronaut (and former Senator from New Mexico) Dr. Harrison "Jack" Schmidt, a Ph.D. geologist, who explains in detail how a manned Moonbase could mine and process the rare Helium-3 isotope of helium. That particular isotope could be used as an efficient and powerful fuel for future fusion-powered spacecraft. The Moon would become, in effect, an interplanetary service station. (Sounds good to me, Jack!) Plus, the experience gained from living and working on the Moon—which is relatively close to home, in case any emergencies arise—would be invaluable to any Mars mission, which would be on its own in the void for over two years.
Another hot-button issue that's confronted directly is the "man vs. robot" question—why send humans if robotic explorers can do the same job without risk of life? Several manned spaceflight proponents, among them the then-current NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, argue in favor of the flexibility of humans, who can adapt to unexpected situations—but everyone admits that the robots have been doing a pretty good job so far. Since the title of the program implies human exploration, I don't think one could reasonably expect this documentary to fall on the side of the robots, but at least the issue (which is a very valid question) was broached.
I was very surprised to find James Cameron's name popping up repeatedly in this documentary. After a little research, I discovered that some of the graphical material used in the piece was generated not by NASA, but by the King of the World himself. Cameron has been working, off and on, on several Mars-related projects for some time now (including a failed investment in a firm that wanted to put two privately-funded rovers onto Mars); some of the computer-generated Mars spacecraft and on-the-ground activity animations we see in this documentary were apparently created as production aids for a planned TV miniseries. (In fact, I strongly suspect that the program itself may have been originally intended as a promotional tie-in to that miniseries, or possibly as a DVD extra. I have no proof of this…I just suspect it.)
First Steps on Mars strikes a nice balance with respect to its level of technicality: It's not so technical that the average person cannot understand it, but not so simplistic that it seems targeted at kindergarteners. It should be noted that the program focuses exclusively on manned Mars exploration—it doesn't, for example, contain any discussion of the successful Mars Pathfinder rover mission or any of the other recent robotic probes to Mars (other than bringing up robotic exploration in general as part of the man vs. robot discussion).
Sadly, the DVD's picture quality betrays its obvious source: a direct and unenhanced transfer from an earlier VHS version of the documentary. Some of the computer graphics are quite nice, and would have benefited from a digital touch-up. Overall, the program looks no better than a stock store-bought VHS tape would look. The audio (in Dolby Stereo) is adequate for the task. No extras are provided.
First Steps on Mars is as good a summary of the current state of planning and development for manned missions to Mars as one can get these days. Although old, it's not yet dated. But it's hard not to be left with a sense of sadness—although a Mars mission would be expensive, and there are many problems here on Earth that could be addressed with that money, I'd like to think that the romance and adventure that the exploration of an entirely new planet would bring to humanity would be of great benefit to the world in these troubled times. President George W. Bush broached the issue of a return to the Moon and a mission to Mars in a speech last January, and the Administration's subsequently proposed plan was realistic and achievable. However, as with so many things in the world of government, there were an insufficient number of public officials who could see potential political gain in the project, and the plan seems to have died a quiet death.
It will likely be a long (but not infinite) time before we see a human set foot into the soil of our neighbor planet. Until then, we can watch shows like First Steps on Mars…and dream.
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