Zubrin: Humans could be on Mars by 2018

Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin scoffs at the ridiculously complicated and expensive missions that planners keep proposing for getting humans to the Red Planet. Zubrin says that if we decided to go today, we could be there in seven years with a program of Mars exploration that is relatively inexpensive.

Robert Zubrin

Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars, signed copies of the book after his talk Saturday at the Museum of Flight's Mars Fest. Zubrin says if we decided now to go to Mars we could be there by 2016. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Zubrin gave a talk Saturday as part of the Mars Fest at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. He said that it’s important for us to explore Mars.

“Mars is the closest planet to us that has on it all of the resources needed to support life and therefore civilization,” he noted.

A short time-line is critical, according to Zubrin, who says if we set a goal to get to Mars in 30 years it will never happen.

“In 1961 John F. Kennedy committed us to get to the Moon by the end of the decade, and we were there eight years later,” he said. “If in fact John F. Kennedy had instead committed us to get to the moon not by 1970, but by 1990 or the turn of the century, we never would have made it.” New political regimes change the plans, and often existing efforts are scrapped.

Zubrin has a plan for getting to Mars, called Mars Direct. He says it won’t take some sort of super rocket to get to there, and that we can do it with technology we have now using an approach he calls “lift and throw and let it go,” using a rocket with a second booster stage.

“That’s how we’ve done every real, unmanned planetary mission to date, and that’s how we did the Apollo missions to the Moon,” Zubrin noted. “None of these missions beyond lower orbit have ever been done by lifting things up to an orbiting spaceport and transferring them to a Battlestar Galactica-class interplanetary spaceship using a plasma drive that’s been refueled and refurbished in the orbiting navy yard.

“If we can lift and throw the payloads to the planet, right there you’ve gone 90 percent of the way towards taking the mission out of this sort of science fiction future, and putting it in our world of real engineering,” he added.

The Case for MarsSince a great deal of the mass of a Mars mission would be fuel for getting back home to Earth, Zubrin suggests we “travel light and live off the land,” sending the return rocket to Mars in 2016, two years ahead of the human explorers, and using chemistry to create methane and oxygen there. When people arrive for an 18-month stint, their return vehicle is ready to go. Every two years you send another return vehicle along with a human exploration crew. Radiation, solar flares, and zero gravity all can be dealt with, he said.

Zubrin has tremendous passion for the idea of human exploration of Mars. He said it’s important to answer the question of whether there was life on Mars, but also whether there will be life there.

“Mars is not just an object of scientific inquiry,” he contended. “It is that. It’s a very important object of scientific inquiry. It is the Rosetta Stone for letting us know the truth about the potential diversity and prevalence of life in the universe. But that is not all it is.

“What Mars actually is, fundamentally, is a world. It is a planet with a surface area equal to all the continents of the Earth put together. It has on it all of the resources needed to support life and civilization. If we can learn how to use those resources, we can make Mars habitable.”

That wouldn’t happen overnight. Rather, Zubrin said our generation has the chance to make Mars intellectually habitable.

“If we can go to Mars and develop the craft of making use of Mars’ resources,” he said, “then Mars becomes a place where human beings can support themselves, and where a new branch of human civilization can develop and grow, and in the fullness of time grow in size and extent and technological and industrial capability where it can begin to address the question of the actual physical transformation of Mars.

“By so doing we set into motion the process where we not only bring life to Mars, we bring Mars to life.”

America, Zubrin says, needs the challenge.

“To say that we can’t do it, that we have to wait for futuristic developments, is just to say that we have become less than the kind of people we used to be, and that is something that I think this country cannot afford,” he concluded.

After the talk Zubrin signed copies of his book, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. The book spells out Mars Direct in detail. A Wikipedia entry gives a good summary with lots of technical information.