Today 3 crewmembers of expedition 30/31 returned from the ISS after 193 days in Space. For me, being Dutch, that was a momentous occasion as ‘my’ Dutch astronaut André Kuipers returned to Earth in a Soyuz with his colleagues Don Pettit and Oleg Kononenko. Incidentally, 193 days is about the time it would take a human crew to travel from Earth to Mars. A trip André would love to make as he_and many of his astronaut colleagues around the world_ told reporters, when president Bush announced his ‘Moon, Mars and beyond’ space plans in 2004.
What I do know is that very recently the Dutch government announced to cut its Space budget from 100 million to 63 Million. For the at present struggling Dutch economy not a wise decision as each euro spend by the government on Space does have a return of 4 to 5 euros, while each quarter euro you take from the Space budget will in reality cost Space 1 whole euro. For the Netherlands, which is home to the European Space Research and Technology Centre (Estec) in Noordwijk, and which is proud to host many solid space companies, this is an amazingly shortsighted government move. Apollo proved that more than having a multiplier effect on the dollars spend, it had an enormous effect on the youth of the USA, moving them into the hard fields at school: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), which thrived as never before for decades after Buzz and Neil stepped on the Moon for us. Likewise technological industry thrived with it, making the USA a leader in many technology fields. That effect is the same in Europe. So saving euros on the space budget will potentially set the Netherlands back in education as well as in industrial strength.
All the while the Dutch national television is broadcasting the Soyuz descending underneath its big parachute. Exactly where it was supposed to land (landing ellipse of 25 kilometers, so about the size of the projected landing site of the Mars Science Lab on 5 August) or the Kazach helicopters would not have been able to pick up this view right after the re-entry in the atmosphere.
At 10:15 on the dot the Soyuz touches down. Helicopters land around the capsule and 20 minutes later the commander is helped out of the capsule and put on a chair while his colleagues are next to be heaved out of the hatch. André Kuipers appears as second and cheers can be heard from ESTEC over my television. Don Pettit, the US astronaut is last. I am wondering whether their white pasty faces are due to lack of sunshine for 6 months or the strain of the re-entry and landing. No worries, as a large team of Russian helpers is there to make them comfortable and take care of them completely.
That is luxury as no humans landing on Mars (at least in the first years, I presume) will have such a welcoming committee with a warm honorary cape and a nice cup of hot tea helping you out of your lander and pampering you. Marsonauts will have to help themselves.
Are we humans ready to go to Mars? Feasible and affordable plans are ready. Feasible as they are using almost exclusively existing technology. Affordable as they are within the Human Space Flight budget of NASA. In August Explore Mars will publish those Mars Mission Architectures (MMArch) in her Mars Exploration Magazine.
So as far as robust plans are concerned we are all set. However, are we set where the human component of that trip is concerned?
Remembering what female astronauts told me in November last year at our Women and Mars conference that at the moment menstruating females are not allowed to use the toilet in the Russian part of the ISS as the Russians are convinced that the toilet will break down if they would use it. Note: the toilet in the American part of the ISS is exactly the same toilet as in the Russian part, and it does not break down when menstruating females use it.
Knowing this anti-female bias within the Russian space community, which also raised its ugly head in the Mars500 selection, I highly doubt that an international crew to Mars will happen soon.
That means that the USA is on its own.
Will it step up to the plate?
Or will it leave the first step on Mars to the Chinese, that seem to have an unbridled ambition to prove themselves to the world as a Space-faring nation of the first order.
This is an election year in the USA. We should ask Mitt Romney as well as Barack Obama to debate their outlook on Space and their plans for human missions; a debate that would tell America, what to expect for STEM and that part of industry that has the greatest potential to make America proud.
Lets hope both candidates have the guts to show their color.