From The Editors Science

Sending People to Mars is “Stupid” – “Almost Ridiculous” Says Former NASA Astronaut

While the likes of NASA and private players like SpaceX and Blue Origin, to name a couple, seem determined to send manned missions to Mars, one of the first men to orbit the moon believes it’s a “stupid” idea.

Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, former NASA astronaut Bill Anders, said that sending people to Mars was “almost ridiculous.”

He was speaking to the radio broadcast service as part of a special documentary – “Apollo 8: Christmas On the Far Side of the Moon” – celebrating the golden jubilee anniversary of the mission.

Anders told the service that he was a “big supporter” of unmanned space missions, largely due to the fact that they were much cheaper to fund than human missions, which is why they didn’t have any public support.

“What’s the imperative? What’s pushing us to go to Mars?” Anders asked.
“I don’t think the public is that interested,” he added.

Anders, who as a lunar module pilot was an integral part of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1968, was rather critical of how the space agency has evolved since.

“NASA couldn’t get to the Moon today. They’re so ossified,” Anders lamented.

“Nasa has turned into a jobs program… many of the centers are mainly interested in keeping busy and you don’t see the public support other than they get the workers their pay and their congressmen get re-elected,” he said.

“I think NASA’s lucky to have what they’ve got — which is still hard, in my mind, to justify,” he said, acknowledging that he wasn’t a “very popular guy at NASA for saying that,” but that’s what he thought.

Ander’s Apollo 8 crewmate and mission commander, Frank Borman, has a different perspective, though.

“I’m not as critical of NASA as Bill is,” he told Radio 5, adding, “I firmly believe that we need robust exploration of our Solar System and I think a man is part of that.”

However, Borman was somewhat scathing in his opinion about Space X CEO Elon Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, both of whom have manned missions to the red planet in the pipeline.

“I do think there’s a lot of hype about Mars that is nonsense,” Borman said.
“Musk and Bezos, they’re talking about putting colonies on Mars, that’s nonsense,” he added.

Reminiscing about the pioneering mission, Anders said that the “Earthrise” picture taken from Apollo 8, which shows the blue planet above the lunar horizon, half-lit against the pitch black of space, has left a lasting impression on his mind.

The famous Earthrise image from Apollo 8 (Source: NASA)
The famous Earthrise image from Apollo 8 (Source: NASA)

Calling it a “great endeavor,” Borman said that the Apollo 8 mission, effectively, won the space race for the United States.

When people were celebrating Christmas back home, Anders, Borman and the third crew member of the mission, command module pilot Jim Lovell, were marveling at the sight of the moon up close.

Apollo 8 went on to orbit the moon as many as ten times, taking twenty hours in the process, and each time they went around the far side they lost radio contact with mission control.

“Behind the moon, you have absolutely no contact with anybody on Earth, anyway,” Anders said.

“I felt like I have to make sure the spacecraft was working,” he said, adding that he didn’t dwell much on the fact that they were out of touch with humanity.

Borman said that working with NASA kept him away from home for 200-250 days a year, “so it was nothing that we weren’t accustomed to,” but the fact that it was Christmas made him more nostalgic than he had ever felt.

Launched on December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 traveled through space for 68 hours to cover the distance to the moon and, as mentioned, orbited Earth’s natural satellite ten times in just over twenty hours before heading back home.

Their spaceplane made a watery landing in the northern Pacific Ocean on December 27, about 4,500 meters off-target, where they were picked up by the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown.

The Apollo 8 mission set the tone for Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin’s historic moon landing on Apollo 11, which in the words of Armstrong was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Speaking at a Q&A session at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, earlier this year, Musk had spoken at length on one of his pet topics, Mars and its imminent colonization.

He said that SpaceX was in the process of building an “interplanetary ship,” which would be the first step towards realizing his super-ambitious dream of putting humans on the red planet.

“We are building the first ship, or interplanetary ship, right now,” Musk told screenwriter Jonathan Nolan at the Austin venue.

He was obviously referring to the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR)

“And we’ll probably be able to do short flights, short up and down flights, during the first half of next year,” he said.

Clearing the general misconception that the colonization of Mars would mainly serve as “an escape hatch for rich people,” Musk said that it was far from the truth.

He said that it was a dangerous undertaking that could even end in death for some, but “excitement” for those who manage to come out of it alive.

“For the people who go to Mars, it’ll be far more dangerous,” he said.

“It kind of reads like Shackleton’s ad for Antarctic explorers. ‘Difficult, dangerous, good chance you’ll die. Excitement for those who survive.’ That kind of thing,” he added.

He said that despite the risks involved, there were people for whom the thrill of the adventure into the “next frontier” would take precedence over everything else.

“There are already people who want to go in the beginning. There will be some for whom the excitement of exploration and the next frontier exceeds the danger,” Musk said.

Taking it a step or two further, he said that his Mars endeavor would herald larger world participation, in terms of building the infrastructure necessary for the colonization of his favorite planet, ranging from “iron foundries to pizza joints and nightclubs.”

He even spoke about a “direct democracy” kind of government on the red planet, allowing colonizers to vote directly on specific issues, rather than having a representative government.

“Most likely, the form of government on Mars would be somewhat of direct democracy.” He said.

“Maybe it requires 60% [majority vote] to get a law in place, but any number over 40% can remove a law,” Musk said. That way it would be “easier to get rid of a rule than to put one in,” he added.

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