Every 26 months, a highway to Mars opens up. What happens is that the planets line up in such a way that the configuration is best for spacecraft to travel to Mars. The next window is 2020.
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration has announced that it will be sending a spacecraft to Mars in 2020.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is now talking of sending two Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars in 2020, one at the front end of the launch window and one at the back end. These two missions have not been formally announced, but SpaceX science missions manager Jim Green has made public comment along these lines.
The idea of having two craft is essentially ‘insurance’. SpaceX plans to test out ‘supersonic retro propulsion’ to slow the descent of the spacecraft. Bear in mind that Mars has a very thin atmosphere; so, the scientists on earth cannot easily do tests in the atmosphere of our earth.
SpaceX, as in the past, is being adventurous. The plan is for an 8 t spacecraft to land. Of that 8 t, 2 t is fuel that will be burnt on landing, so a 6 t load will end up on the Martian surface.
So far, the largest spacecraft successfully landed on Mars was Curiosity, which entered the Martian atmosphere at 3.6 t and landed at only 900 kg.
The SpaceX approach of using propulsive landing is important because the maths shows that the company could land up to 30 t in due course.
SpaceX has clearly indicated that it is aiming to send humans to Mars at some stage and that it is its goal to have a Mars base. Great. This appeals to me. This is fun. It is also serious. I want to emphasise the importance of fun that is serious or, if you like, serious fun.
To go for grand projects, it is necessary to have a dream and a drive. A dream that can be projected as fun is the type of thing that stimulates the excitement to achieve what often appear to be impossible goals.
It is not possible to calculate out such a project in fine detail in terms of money, technology or general project details. The mere nature of a dream means that the meandering path of development cannot be known in advance. Certainly, SpaceX has plans and pathways but, right now, it will not know which pathway will turn out to be the correct one and how hard it will be to travel the chosen path. This is much like climbing a mountain. You can stand at the bottom and, by eye, figure out a likely way to the summit. But it is only as you go that you will find out the true nature of the climb.
This needs guts. It also needs leadership. Good leaders inspire others to become infected with the dream and the target. That is how you motivate the whole team.
I completely support the SpaceX guys in what they are trying to do. So far, they have been amazingly successful in achieving what appeared to be some really nutty ideas. They launch rockets that reverse back down and land vertically on the launch pad. A few years ago, such an idea seemed totally loony. But they did it. So, I certainly encourage them to go for other ‘loony’ ideas in the future.
Not all their rockets landed successfully. Some blew up. I watched them all in real time. However, their success rate was impressively high. So, they learnt fast. A failure is only a real failure if you learn nothing from it.
If the system is well instrumented – and they have a good team figuring out what happened – then a rocket which blows up can teach one a great deal concerning the right and wrong approach.
So, SpaceX, go for Mars. The spirit of intelligent adventure is an example to people worldwide.