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ST. LOUIS, Mo.—More than just about anything, Robert Zubrin would like to see humans visit and then settle on Mars during his lifetime. The aerospace engineer has made a living of identifying technologies needed to get astronauts to the Red Planet and trying to build a public consensus that Mars is humanity’s next great leap.
Zubrin also likes to knock down hurdles and roadblocks that he sees standing between humans and Mars. Concerned about radiation? Don’t be, Zubrin says, because the in-flight dose won’t be appreciably greater than some US and Russian astronauts have accumulated during long-duration missions to the International Space Station. And what about the cost? If NASA were to buy services directly from industry and bypass the cost-plus method of contracting, humans could walk on Mars for tens of billions of dollars, he says.
Some plans for the mission have gone to great lengths to “protect” Earth from any Martian microbes that might somehow exist in the samples, including a rendezvous in lunar orbit so a crew aboard the Orion spacecraft could inspect them. This has added “billions” of dollars to the cost of sample return, Zubrin noted, and essentially serves no purpose because the Earth is already bombarded by rocks ejected from Mars. An estimated 500kg of Martian meteorites land on Earth every year.
has said concerns about microbes buried deep in the Martian soil should not deter efforts by his company to both send robotic probes to Mars, as well as colony-transport ships.
Based upon these two conflicting attitudes—with NASA and some of its scientists on one side, saying every effort, regardless of expense, should be made for planetary protection, and those opposed to them, who are not as concerned—a day of reckoning may soon come.
Ars is aware of concerns in Congress about the prospect of private space companies sending missions to Mars and beyond, and legislation may end up preventing launches that do not comply with NASA’s current planetary protection rules. Whether we reach that point may not be academic for much longer, as SpaceX intends to send one or two Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars in 2020, and the company will need to obtain a launch license from the federal government for any such flight.