First Send Robots
Awhile back the L.A. Times wrote an article favoring robotic space exploration over manned. The science-fiction writer Greg Bishop wrote to take strong exception. He saw cowardice in that. Jerry Pournelle saw lack of vision. I see a correct assessment of return on investment.
Suppose that we resolve to spend a terabuck on a Mars mission; shall the program be mostly manned or mostly robotic? Well, what do we, the taxpayers, get out of it? A terabuck spent on a manned mission buys us some dramatic launches and re-entries, the occasional tragedy, lots of pretty pictures, some science, and we learn a lot about how to make spacesuits and hydroponics. A terabuck spent on robotic missions buys us very little drama, no tragedies at all, lots of pretty pictures, plenty of science, and we learn a lot about how to make semi-autonomous robots.
Heroic danger is fine, if it is to a purpose, but as an end in itself it is a vice. Beautiful pictures and good science are worth the price, I think, but others may disagree with me on the value of government-funded art shows and science projects.
Technology, too, is a vice, unless it is to a purpose. Which would you rather have the government invest in; spacesuits or robots? I vote for the robots; spacesuits are useless, Earthside.
You want vision? I’m all for sending people to Mars eventually; but if you’re going to go that far away, then you might as well go in style; and send colonists, not tourists. This means a big ship, complete with thick radiation shields; and also a big base for the ship to go to. Build the ship in orbit, mostly by telepresence robots; and build the Mars base entirely by semi-autonomous robots. Inventing robots able to do that would cost a terabuck; but the technology would be worth ten terabucks, Earthside.
To move that ship, I recommend the Orion drive. Of course a bomb-propelled ship would have to involve the nuclear powers. I propose that part of the price for seats on the Mars ship be weapons-grade fissile material, scavenged from decomissioned bombs eliminated by treaty. Nukes for tickets; a fitting tribute to Mars. Part of the mission’s objective would be to use the stuff up.
Most of the Mars colonist’s outdoor work will be done telerobotically. The telerobot is safer than the spacesuit, it gives a clearer view in more wavelengths, and its hands are stronger, steadier and more nimble than spacesuit hands. The colonists will be on Mars mostly to avoid light-speed delay.
So I say, sure let’s go, but not yet. First send robots.