NASA's Needed Mars MissionJanuary 06, 2017
On a single evening this past November, people of all religions, ethnicities, and sexualities were transfixed across our nation, continent, and planet by one unifying event that put our lives in perspective, the supermoon. It has been almost 50 years since mankind united watching NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, land their lunar module in 1969 or seeing Apollo 17′s Blue Marble, possibly history's most reproduced photograph ever, for the first time in 1972. Today our defense budget is more than the next seven highest combined, our global weapons sales are half of all worldwide, and NASA's budget is proportionally less than any competitor resulting in my generation only having movies like the "Martian," "Gravity," or my personal favorite, "Interstellar," to inspire us to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
In the beginning, the Big Bang created physics and then chemistry, dark matter, and dark energy producing today's ever expanding cosmos of 100 – 200 billion galaxies like our Milky Way. The gravitational collapse of a giant molecular cloud, from solar systems long past, formed a spinning pre-solar nebula disc whose collapsing core caused the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen creating heavier elements, the Sun, and the Sun's internal energy source. Our star's immense gravitational pull caused Jupiter, our failed second star formed from the protoplanetary disc's condensing gases, to spiral inwards until Saturn, our snow ball ringed crown jewel formed from remaining gases, began its decent towards the Sun causing both gas giants to change course. Jupiter's Grand Tack allowed the inner planets to form from the protoplanetary disc's heavier elements, like silicon, aluminum, and iron that remained closer to the Sun, while denying Mars half of its raw materials resulting in its small size. Theia, a Mars sized protoplanet, then struck the still hellish Earth, exchanging mineral deposits and ejecting the mantle, developing our moon, tidal pools, and ultimately biology. Jupiter's gravity then flung Uranus and Neptune into their wrong positions, ejected a never to be seen again third ice giant from the solar system, and caused the platinum, gold, and nickel abundant asteroid belt to heavily bombard the inner planets and our moon.
To learn life's origins, we must learn if other life exists elsewhere, and such a discovery on Mars, Jupiter's Europa, or Saturn's Titan would be humankind's most momentous event since Copernicus' heliocentric model. It is possible that meteorites, blasted off Mars during the bombardment, seeded Earth with life given that Mars currently has frozen water in its polar icecaps, was once warmer and wetter with lakes and rivers that our rovers confirmed were habitable for life as we know it, and had the life forming elements of boron and molybdenum that Earth lacked. Granted we would have to shield from space particles, solar flares, and cosmic radiation, but NASA could have sent a manned mission to Mars decades ago to possibly discover groundwater microbes or molecular fossils had President Nixon not decided for post Apollo NASA to focus on military spy satellite repair instead. The major Mars mission tenants of Nazi V-2 rocket engineer, American Apollo Saturn V rocket chief architect, and the 1952 author of the Mars Project, Wernher von Braun, have only been improved with reusable rockets to save on the cost of constructing Mars bound spacecraft in the earth's orbit, establishing basecamps prior to manned flight's arrival on both sides of the Martian equator to contend with seasonal fluctuations, and tapping the potentially large quantities of water and carbon dioxide reserves within Mars' regolith for subsistence.
If we can go to Mars, we become a spacefaring species in order to reach another one of the Milky Way's 100 billion solar systems to find an orbiting planet with sufficient atmospheric pressure and liquid water prior to another cosmic collision, a nuclear mistake, or a runaway greenhouse effect causing another planetary extinction. Since a powerful spectrograph's 1995 detection of Bellerophon, a hot Jupiter whose four day orbit causes its Pegasus constellation star to wobble, 3,545 exoplanets in 2,660 planetary systems and 597 multiple planetary systems have been confirmed. This December, NASA will launch the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite to succeed the Kepler Spacecraft's exoplanet search. However, this past August, the European Southern Observatory discovered Proxima b, an exoplanet in the Goldilocks zone of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Sun, which is one of three stars of the Alpha Centauri star system. Despite being 4.37 light years away, investors of Breakthrough Snapshot are looking to launch a mothership in 2036 that would deploy from Earth's orbit a thousand centimeter sized StarChip spacecraft whose solar sails would be accelerated one by one by ground-based lasers for the 20-30 year voyage to Alpha Centauri to relay pictures of Proxima b's surface features.
NASA should be funded to reinvigorate the world again with the common enterprise of sending explorers further than any in human history, instead of relying on Russia to send our astronauts into space, China to send their taikonauts to the moon, and private corporations to send manned missions to Mars just to mine the extremely valuable asteroid belt. Every dollar spent has a seven to fourteen dollar return from NASA's Technology Transfer Program's nearly 2,000 private industry spin-off technologies. If you seek celestial stimulation and are not traveling to Nashville for America's first total solar eclipse in almost fifty years on August 21, stop by the New Hampshire Astronomical Societies' next Market Square Skywatch on February 4 or any Saturday nearest to the first quarter moon, before our lunar inspiration leaves us completely at its current pace of one inch every year.