Re: A Case for the Eradication of Unmanned Mars Missions
Tue, 7 Dec 1999 10:07:08 -0800 writes, quoting Mac Tonnies:
> The recent loss of the Mars Polar Lander, the second in a series of probes to
> fall victim to NASA's "faster, better, cheaper" mission philosophy, provides
> an excellent opportunity to reassess our commitment to Mars exploration. The
> "human imperative" advocates nothing less than a manned mission in place of
> all future robotic missions, preferably to begin as soon as possible.

Failures will happen. In a manned mission, people are killed; in an unmanned mission, equipment is lost. Isn't the latter much more acceptable?

The real problem with the recent failures is that we aren't succeeding in improving the reliability. Each failure seems to be due to a different cause, but when those causes are fixed the failures still happen.

It seems to me that it will be necessary to spend a lot more money on these probes, to have even more redundancy and reliability built-in. There needs to be much more in the way of self-monitoring and perhaps even self-repairing capability. We have to build systems that can survive months and years in space with high reliability, and we should do more experiments in earth orbit to try to find out what we're doing wrong.

We might have to rethink the design and put more of the budget into the infrastructure and less into the "conceptual payload", the sensing and analysis devices. Granted, this increases costs, but given the recent track record it may save money in the long run, by providing better quality information about the nature of the failures and by reducing the failure rate.

As for putting men on Mars, there was a time when space advocates fixed their hopes on a manned mission to the Moon. They assumed that once this goal was accomplished there would be a natural follow-on in terms of exploration, experimental bases, and eventual colonization. As we know, none of this happened.

The same thing could happen with Mars, only increased to the nth degree because of the tremendously greater expense. Mars is not any more interesting than the moon to the general public, not after you've seen it for a few hours. Dust, rocks, and sand, nothing more. You can find the same thing in any desert, and we don't spend trillions of dollars to send people out into the desert.