As we learned once again in Missouri this week, men are, indeed, from Mars.
But scandals in centers of power aside, Mars, the Red Planet, retains a powerful pull on human desire. Our need to explore, to imagine and perhaps even to save us from ourselves underlies the lingering expectation that we will get there someday.
This is no idle thought. Just recently, NASA added momentum to a program that will commandeer a nearby asteroid, the intent of which is to add to our knowledge of the solar system and serve as a prelude to a manned Mars mission.
Imagine this: By 2021 or so, a spacecraft’s robotic tentacles will pluck a large boulder from the surface of an asteroid, perhaps one known as 2008 EV5. Subsequently, during a drawn-out dance of gravity and motion, the boulder will be repositioned to a stable orbit around the moon.
Eventually the boulder will tell scientists much about the presence of water and precious minerals in asteroids.
And then, about five years into the Asteroid Redirect Mission, NASA astronauts will travel on the new deep-space Orion craft to hook up with that big rock above the moon.
All this was outlined by Steve Stich, a NASA official coordinating that mission, who gave a talk Thursday at the Linda Hall Library.
In development are enhanced spacesuit designs, solar-powered propulsion components, a new docking system and other space travel advancements, Stich said.
“All those technologies really do feed forward to Mars,” he said in an interview earlier in the day.
A NASA staffer for 27 years, Stich is an engineer who now manages exploration activities, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Clean-shaven with graying short hair, he speaks softly and with an engineer’s directness.
A Mars launch could follow the manned boulder mission by perhaps a decade, sometime in the 2030s, Stich said.
“If you look at our solar system and the places humans can go,” he said, “Mars is the logical place.”
After NASA’s rover missions to Mars, including the Curiosity landing in 2012, scientists know much more than ever about the fourth planet, 140 million miles from Earth.
“We understand that it once was a pretty wet planet,” he said. “We see evidence of rock formations just like we see in the deserts here in the United States and other places on the Earth.”
Although the physicist Freeman Dyson has suggested recently that in order to settle on Mars and live freely, humans would have to grow fur, that sort of assessment has not deterred the adventurous, in and out of NASA, who intend to take that great leap in the future.
“We’ve looked at Mars for many years,” Stich said. “We’re starting to put the pieces in place to go there.”
Stich said these NASA missions appear to be adequately funded — “we do the best we can with what we’re given” — and the political will seems to be in place to keep it going.
On his first visit to the Linda Hall Library, Stich was dumbfounded when introduced to some of the genuine treasures in its collection of cosmology’s greatest hits. First editions of Copernicus, Kepler, Newton — the pillars of astronomy.
“This is the foundation of everything I did,” Stich said, as historian Bill Ashworth turned pages of Kepler’s “Astronomia Nova,” a 400-year-old study of Mars. And then, from Copernicus in 1543, “the very first picture of the solar system in print,” Ashworth said.
“If you talk about all the different problems today,” Stich said, “this work led to that. That’s amazing. Just amazing.”
And that’s how many people feel when they look to the stars in that infinite blanket of blackness. To the moon. To Mars. And beyond.