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Zubrin Talks Mars With SpaceDaily

Robert Zubrin shortly before heading north to Devon Island in July 2001.
by Jim Owens
Los Angeles - Dec 9, 2001
In early November, Jim Owens met with Robert Zubrin president of the Mars Society in the United States. Over several hours Jim recorded the following Q and A with Dr Zubrin and learned much about the about challenges of getting to Mars and building the space industry to support that goal.

Robert Zubrin is the founder and president of Pioneer Astronautics. Having earned a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Washington, Dr. Zubrin has served as the Principal Investigator on the SBIR methanol ejector ramjet, the Mars Methanol ISPP programs, the Mars Microballoon programs, and Mars in-situ propellant production projects.

Dr. Zubrin has published over 100 technical and non-technical articles, and is the editor for Mars Exploration of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. He is currently working on a number of projects, including the TransLife Project, of which the Earth-based phase was completed on a budget of significantly less than $1000.

Dr. Zubrin is also the author of two books: "The Case for Mars: How We shall Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must," and "Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization."

JO: Five and a half billion dollars-NASA gets that every year for human space flight. If you, being the Mars Society, and you personally, had that much money, is that enough to put mankind on Mars?

RZ: I think that five or six billion dollars if spent by the government would probably not do a Mars mission. But, government money is government money. I think NASA with good leadership running a program in efficient mode with the parameters that one could expect could put humans on Mars for 20 billion dollars.

In the private world, five, six billion could possibly do it-certainly eight could. But, in the private world, six billion dollars is a lot of cookies. I think that both end uses are possible in principle.

The government program requires globalization and political support. I think there's tremendous support in the American public for space exploration, in particular for putting humans on Mars, opening a new frontier.

I think the American people still very much believe that we need to continue the invasion of Mars, and the citizens don't understand why we are not pursuing this more aggressively.

They don't understand why so many politicians apparently accept this notion of this being the age of limits or something. Americans don't accept that. On the other hand, there are hundreds of millions of people in the West, more generally North America and Western Europe who also believe that it is essential to the human future that we do become a multi-planet species-that we do expand into space.

And those people, if they could be rallied represent a sufficient financial force to do it themselves with a very modest personal sacrifice, meaning a hundred million people times a hundred dollars is ten billion dollars. So the Mars Society is taking both approaches.

We're trying to organize the public to be able to convey their support for Mars exploration to the political class so as to actually initiate human Mars exploration through NASA. But we're also doing projects of our own, such as the Mars Arctic Research Station.

And the purpose of these projects is both to achieve certain scientific objectives in themselves, and also to earn credibility so that we can rally large financial forces to Mars. These are aggressive and important projects. For example our second project is an intellectual space flight project, which is the TransLife Mission to research Mars gravity effects on mammals in space.

JO:The goals of the Mars Society as taken from its charter are to expand the knowledge of Mars as rapidly as possible through both robotic and human exploration and, secondly , to establish a permanent human presence on Mars at the earliest possible date. Given the financial outlook as it exists right now, how soon can this be expected to happen?

RZ: We could have humans on Mars within ten years. We are much better prepared today technologically to send people to Mars than we were to send people to the moon in 1961.

So the government-funded approach is actually the quicker approach because the government actually has in its hands the resources required-both technically and financially to do such a program if it decided to do so.

It requires a process whereby we grow in size, in financial heft, in technological capability, through a series of missions: Arctic Station, the TransLife Mission, a robotic Mars mission, and finally, human Mars mission.

It could take more like 20 years before the Mars societies are prepared to do this ourselves. The current war is on one level a major distraction for a possible program, but there are counterintuitive possibilities.

Who would have expected the confrontation with the Soviet Union to precipitate a US expedition to the moon? And yet most people view the Cold War, far from hindering the Apollo Program, as being essential to it.

Right now we are engaged with an opponent whose operative ideology is opposition to science, reason and free thought, which is the basis for both science and democracy. A human to Mars program could be an essential element to discrediting their ideology. And so, things can develop, then, that are unexpected.

JO: What steps is the Mars Society taking currently to forward the objective of privately financing Mars development and exploration?

RZ:Okay, the steps that we are taking are a series of projects of our own, which have been privately funded - exclusively privately funded. The first major project was the building of the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island. We resolved to do this in our founding convention in 1998.

Between then and 2000, we raised and acquired money and we built the station in 2000, really under conditions of significant adversity because there was a failed paradrop and the construction equipment was destroyed.

The paid construction crew deserted and we ended up building it ourselves with the help of the Inuits.

But we were successful in building it and this past summer we operated it for the first time. This was something that people had talked about, at least in my working lifetime, since the early 80s and I'd be willing to bet since the 60s. We did it.

We now have a second station going up. It will go up in Utah: the Mars Desert Research Station. Between the two stations-the Utah Station, operating in the winter, and the Arctic Station, operating in the Summer-we will have a program that will extend most of the year. We are also looking at additional stations in the European Arctic and in Australia.

Those, however important, might be viewed as linear extensions in the current program. So while we are doing that we are also launching a new program, which is the Translife Mission.

This is a low-cost, privately funded mission that will put a capsule in Earth orbit that will spin at sufficient rate to produce Mars gravity in the capsule. And then we will have a crew of mice who will live in this for 50 days, during which time they will be allowed to reproduce and the youngsters to grow up.

And then they will be recovered and studied and what we will be able to determine from this is if Mars gravity is sufficient to reverse or at least stop the extremely bad health effects that have been observed at zero gravity-deterioration of muscle and bone. That is important for the first human explorers to Mars.

But the second question is: Can mammals actually be conceived, born, and raised in Mars gravity and develop into proper adults?

This is fundamental for the question of whether life from Earth can ever colonize Mars or any other planet with gravity that is substantially less than that of Earth.

There is no data on that. NASA has completely neglected these issues despite 44 years of activity. And we intend to get this data.

After this, one secondary aspect of this mission is that we will have validated this capsule and, in subsequent missions, we could fire it out into interplanetary space, perhaps as far as the orbit of Mars.

Life from Earth, for the first time, will go that far and we will be able to do that. I believe our first Translife Mission, we can do for about three million dollars.

JO: Three?

RZ: Yes. That is the first one-the Earth orbital one. Going interplanetary will cost a bit more. But these series of missions can be done for this kind of money. And I believe we can raise this kind of money.

We've already raised more than a million dollars to support the Arctic Program. So this is a step but it's not an impossible step.

And I think if we do the Translife Program, where we fly these mice in simulated Mars gravity in Earth orbit and perhaps the interplanetary missions, then this will earn us the credibility required to raise money, not in the multi-million range, but in the hundred million range, which is what is required for privately funded fully independent, robotic missions to Mars. I mean, look: if a private organization had done, for example, the Pathfinder Mission, they would be in a position to raise billions after that.

When you hear privately funded, the first thing people think of is commercial, business plans: profit. Okay, there are certain kinds of space ventures that can be funded on that basis-communication satellites obviously, perhaps even launch vehicles.

But exploration missions to Mars? At this point the business plans are weak.

And if you're going to people who want to spend money to make money - and that is their fundamental purpose - then there are other things they're going to choose.

Nevertheless, there is in private hands sufficient money to do this - not for profit - but for love. There is a tremendous amount of activity that is done in this country with private money but is not done for profit.

Harvard raises a couple of billion dollars every year from alumni every year. And none of that is for profit.

People are willing to spend money for things other than profit. And certainly for the opening space to humanity there are people that are willing to spend money. But they have to be convinced that if they do spend that money that there will be results. That is the purpose of our incremental program of escalating missions.

  • Continue to Part Two of this Interview

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