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Read "Mars: An Adventurer's Guide" (preview available online) in the September/October 2000 ADVENTURE.

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*Ann On-Line: Robert Zubrin
The sounds of science: Hear Zubrin interviewed and reading from his Case for Mars.

*Forum: Red Planet Road Trip?
Tell us: Would you go to Mars?

*The Mars Society
Get the latest on Zubrin's influential group and their push for the red planet.

*Return to Mars: The Pathfinder Mission
Follow the ups and downs of the mission in space-age style —complete with 3-D and virtual reality.

*Story Preview: "Mars—An Adventurer's Guide"
Mars looks more attainable than ever. So what are we waiting for?

*Virtual Solar System
One sun. Nine planets. Three dimensions.

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*Book: Mars—Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet

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q and a
Robert Zubrin
Mars Pathfinder
Age 48
Home Indian Springs, Colorado
Favorite Spot on Mars "Valles Marineris"
Favorite Spot on Earth "I can't answer that."
    "NASA could have people on Mars in ten years."

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how to put people on Mars for peanuts—it takes a hard-boiled, clear-thinking, can-do rocket scientist. Ten years ago just such a scientist ran smack into prevailing NASA wisdom.

That scientist, Robert Zubrin, then a Lockheed Martin engineer, said, roughly, we don't have to spend decades and hundreds of billions of dollars. We don't have to build a great Battlestar Gallactica-style space ark stuffed with a several-year supply of fuel, oxygen, and water. We can make more of all three once we get to Mars, by combining hydrogen from Earth with carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere. In short, we can Lewis-and-Clark it, traveling light and living off the land—and spending mere tens of billions in the process.

At the time, Zubrin's plan, called Mars Direct, was dismissed as overly optimistic. Today it's the framework on which NASA's own Mars Reference Mission is hung. With proper political support, says Zubrin, NASA "could have people on Mars in ten years." With recent discoveries pointing to the possibility of water on Mars, that support may be a near-term possibility.

Meantime, Zubrin continues beating the drum. He's written a book, The Case for Mars, and when we caught up with him, his Mars Society had just completed their first simulated Mars mission in a prototype base in the Canadian high Arctic.

  What can your Arctic habitat tell us about conditions on Mars?

A human Mars mission would in many ways be analogous to a military operation. You'd be in an unfamiliar and hostile place, and you have a variety of tools available to you: the hab itself; short-range, open-air vehicles like ATVs; long-range, pressurized rovers; Mission Control back on Earth; robots.

You have all these different people and things, and you have to figure out how to make them work together in symphony. And, with the Arctic research station, we are basically researching how to do that.

  What are you doing to make life in the Arctic hab more like life would be in a Mars hab?

First of all, communication with outsiders is through e-mail with 20-minute delays.

Second, if they go outside, they can only go for finite durations, wearing either ski gloves and packs—which you cannot take off under any circumstances, to blow your nose, to use your camera, whatever—or actual prototype space suits.

Also, you can't just walk out the front door. You have to go into the "airlock" and be "depressurized." You start operating in the mode you would be operating in on Mars.

We're also experimenting with water-use strategies. Water totally dominates the payload for a mission to Mars. In daily life, we use enormous amounts of water—it's just impossible to use that kind of water on a Mars mission. But if we were to say, "We are sending a crew to Mars, and they would never wash," the place would stink up pretty bad and be very bad for morale.

We want to cut water use down as much as we can. That's why, for instance, we use a sponge bath instead of a shower. You can clean yourself off with a sponge bath and use much less water. We use a non-flush toilet.

  Why send people to Mars?

There are three reasons. The first is knowledge. Mars is the Rosetta stone for letting us know if life is unique in the Earth or a general phenomenon to the universe.

The second reason is to challenge us. I believe that civilizations, like people, grow when challenged. The humans-to-Mars program will be a bracing challenge to our society and especially our youth. Out of that challenge, we would get millions of new scientists, doctors, medical researchers, inventors, engineers—you name it.

The third reason is that, if we open Mars to humanity, a hundred years from now there will be a new branch of human civilization on Mars. There will be millions of people living in cities there—a new people.

  What will human Martians be like?

They will have their own dialect, their own customs. They will have started to develop their own literature and technology. They will have developed their own epics, which inspire those who will push out farther.

With less gravitational resistance, Martians would develop taller, lighter physiques, and Earth people might look very ugly to them—very stocky. You would actually have species divergence. I don't think that is bad. In biology, for instance, we consider a species to be successful if it has many different species that are examples of it.

  Where do we go from Mars?

If we go to space and become a multiplanet species, there will be thousands of new branches of human civilization on thousands of planets in this neck of the galaxy. And they will be as varied and different and wonderful as the different parts of human society are today, if not more so.

  What would Mars look like a thousand years from now, if we colonize?

Long before a thousand years from now, humans will have terraformed Mars. That is, we will have warmed the planet, and given it a breathable atmosphere so that humans, animals, and plants will be living in the open on Mars.

And once Mars becomes truly open to colonization, there will be hundreds of colonies, started not only by nations but by sects, by organizations of people who want to do their noble experiments where the rules haven't been written yet.

  How can we change the entire atmosphere and terrain of Mars?

The fact that we are affecting the climate of the Earth is a sort of proof that we can affect the climate of Mars. The same greenhouse effect that people are trying to avoid on Earth is exactly what we want on Mars.

If the humans living on Mars were to set up factories for the purpose of producing greenhouse gasses, in 20 to 30 years they would warm the planet up 10 degrees Celsius. If you warm up the planet 10 Celsius [18 degrees Fahrenheit], massive amounts of carbon dioxide, which permeates the Martian soil, would start to outgas.

Carbon dioxide is also a greenhouse gas, so it would warm the planet further—another 40 degrees Celsius [72 degrees Fahrenheit]. And the atmosphere would thicken quite a bit. Water would start to melt out of soil. In the tropical regions of Mars you would have water flowing once again in the dry streams. You would have rain, and plants could grow outside on Mars.

  Would humans be able to breathe on Mars after this warming?

While plants could live, humans would still need breathing gear because the atmosphere would be mostly carbon dioxide. We probably wouldn't need a space suit any more—the atmosphere would already be thick enough.

But if plants propagated over the surface of the planet, in about a thousand years you could put enough oxygen in the atmosphere for humans and animals to breathe.

On the other hand, a hundred years into the future I think we will have genetic engineering that can produce plants that are more efficient at photosynthesis. Then oxygenation would move a lot faster.

  What spot in the solar system would you most like to visit?

I'd like to stand at the edge of Valles Marineris on Mars. It's a canyon beyond imagination.

I can still remember my first look at the Grand Canyon. I had seen pictures of it and even an IMAX movie—the most powerful film format we have. Yet the next day, when I saw the canyon in person, it still blew me away. There is no way you can convey it. And compared to the Valles Marineris the Grand Canyon is a thin trench.

  How serious is NASA about Mars?

There are plenty of people that recognize that Mars is the challenge that has been staring them in the face since the Apollo program ended. The real problem is in the political class.

The decision to send humans to Mars is not one that can be made by a NASA administrator. It is a presidential decision. If NASA had the allocation, they could have people on Mars in ten years.

  Could we get to Mars solely on private funding?

In principal we could. If you did it privately, you could do it for significantly less, perhaps a third of what it would cost NASA to do it. So, let's say it could be done for ten billion [U.S.] dollars instead of thirty billion.

Well, in the private world, ten billion dollars is a lot of cookies. But if there are people in the world that want it to happen, they could finance it at very little individual sacrifice. It's a question of rallying them.

Rallying public support is one goal of our Arctic research station, which is a one-million-dollar project. It allows us a lot of outreach but also some credibility, so we may be able to raise funds for a larger project—perhaps a hundred-million-dollar project, like sending a robotic probe to Mars.

If a private organization sent a successful probe to Mars, I think that would be sufficient to raise billions, maybe even enough to send humans to Mars privately.

  What sparked your interest in space travel?

Sputnik is the first world event I can remember. I was five years old, and I was already reading science-fiction stories. To much of the adult world, Sputnik was a scary event. To me, it was exhilarating.

  How long would the first Mars mission last?

Two and a half years: six months out, six months back, one and a half years on the surface. That's about as long as the Lewis-and-Clark expedition took. And people used to take six-month trips to Australia on ships all the time.

  Are people eager to go, given that timetable?

Oh, they would line up coast-to-coast. That's not the problem at all. Right now, we have people banging on our doors to be part of the Mars Arctic research station.

  How does a Mars booster make a living?

Being president of the Mars Society is only my night job. I run Pioneer Astronautics. We do research and development on contract for NASA. That's how I make a living.

  What inspired your travel-light, live-off-the-land Mars plan?

It's simply this: Why do I want to go to Mars? Because it has the resources needed to support life and civilization: water frozen as permafrost, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen. Well, the same resources that make Mars interesting are also what make it attainable. And this is how it has always been with explorers.

Lewis and Clark crossed the continent, hunting as they went. Can you imagine what that expedition would have looked like had they tried to bring with them all the food, water, and air they needed for themselves and their horses? They would have needed a wagon train for every man and every horse.

For instance, on Mars we could take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and react it with hydrogen from Earth to produce methane and oxygen for rocket propellant. That eliminates the need for a massive, heavy fuel payload.

When there are people on Mars, will they import their fuel from Earth? No. When on Mars, do as the Martians will do.

—Ted Chamberlain


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