Thursday 7 March 2013

Dennis Tito's Mission to Mars

Writing of the passing of Hugo Chavez, Pamela Sampson of the Associated Press criticises his government for lifting millions of Latin America's poorest out of poverty. Instead, Chavez should have shelled out on vanity projects. Leaving aside the amorality of their position, Sampson and the AP have got it wrong. Fancy buildings are like so noughties, man. The fashionable super rich with hundreds of millions in disposable income need to get with the (space) programme.

There was a ripple of excitement in medialand a week or so ago when the world's first space tourist, Dennis Tito, unveiled his plan to send a couple to Mars. Sadly, this would not be a landing (others are working on that one) but a circumnavigation of the red planet, similar to 1968's Apollo 8 mission that flew around the Moon. Media interest has focused on the possibility human excreta may have to be used for radiation shielding, and that a middle-aged married couple be recruited as they would, apparently, be best suited to face the psychological challenge a 501-day journey would entail. It's all very risky too - the craft could well become an expensive coffin. Despite the dangers, I expect there will be no shortage of volunteers. Allow me to suggest a few.

Before his skyward trip to Butlin's made him famous, Dennis Tito previously worked at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an engineer. After leaving their employ, Tito went into investment banking and made his fortune from applying the mathematical modelling he worked on at JPL to the markets. So when they say you need to be a rocket scientist to understand the ever-shifting web of stocks and derivatives, they aren't joking. And typical of the 1980s nouveaux riches, Tito was a regular contributor to GOP coffers.

Tito is part of that band of conservatives who strongly identify with the founding myth of America and the frontier. Though, of course, the actual frontier is long buried under continent-crossing highways and air lanes, it still exerts an almost magical pull on the American imagination. As the more overtly nationalist of America's two political parties, it helps explain how the Republicans are the party of religious fundamentalism and anti-science quackery, AND simultaneously the party of Moon bases, space stations and off world colonisation. Therefore for Tito and others it must be endlessly frustrating that the Obama administration - and Democratic presidents since Kennedy - have avoided the pie-in-the-sky space projects of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. But more than that, it's an abrogation of America's duty and symptomatic of the liberal decay that grips the federal government. For an America locked into irresistible relative decline AND big government's unwillingness to take to the stars, the frontier promise falls to great men to assert the nation's manifest destiny. The project is even subtitled a mission for America.

As well as tangled with and emerging from frontier ideology, Tito's initiative comes against the backdrop of a burgeoning commercial interest in space beyond the routine launching of communications satellites. Branson's been banging the space tourism drum for a while. There's the current X-Prize race to put a cheap lander on the Moon and return it with a sample. And why not? Plenty of interesting stuff abounds on the lunar surface just waiting to be mined. And speaking of mining, money is finding its way into asteroid prospecting too. A NUM renaissance might be around the corner.

Tito's 'Inspiration Mars' has to meet the technological challenge of manned deep space exploration. If they do, the commercial spin-offs are obvious. The rewards will be massive for those who can patent the technologies the coming industrialisation of the solar system will depend on, provided we don't all die or get raptured first.

As a bit of a spacehead I find this is all very exciting. The long-term future of the human race requires that we spread beyond the atmospheric envelope of the Earth. But at the same time, we need to recognise, scrutinise and challenge the interests driving it. Because if we don't, as I have written before, the crap we're mired in will go to the Moon, Mars, and beyond with us. And I'm not talking about radiation shielding.

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