Space Travel: From Mars to the Stars
Do humans need to visit Mars? And if the answer is yes, how long will it take to get there?
The potential and purpose for human exploration of space was the focus of the session “Space Travel: From Mars to the Stars,” the closing panel discussion at the Milken Institute’s 20th Global Conference.
As for when, the most aggressive forecast came from Dan Goldin, the former administrator of NASA who left the agency to found KnuEdge Inc., a company dedicated to pushing the boundaries of human-machine interface.
NASA personnel were working on a Mars mission decades ago, but the project became mired in government bureaucracy and a Cold War focus on creating an orbiting space station, Goldin said. The project could be revived, he said. “If somebody came to me with tens of billions of dollars, I’d tell them I could launch in six years.”
Buzz Aldrin, who followed Neil Armstrong out of the Apollo 11 capsule to become the second person to walk on the moon, said a permanent presence on Mars by 2039 was possible with a firm, serious commitment from the U.S. and other technologically advanced nations. His plan, he said, involves first establishing a base on the moon to facilitate the necessary research and fueling infrastructure.
Any plan that stops at Mars lacks vision, said former astronaut Mae Jemison, who leads 100 Year Starship®, a global initiative to ensure people have the physical, emotional and social capability for interstellar travel within 100 years. Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel in space as a member of the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992. The biggest obstacles to interstellar travel isn’t propulsion, but human health, she said. Systems must be developed that can sustain life and cope with illness and injury during long periods of space travel, she said.
As for why, one motivation for travel beyond the Earth is the prospect that humans will discover life in distant star systems. Scientists have identified planets within our galaxy that resemble Earth, said Yuri Milner, founder of DST Global and the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. The Starshot Initiative is a $100 million program to develop a proof-of-concept “light sail” spacecraft that would provide the technology needed to make a 20-year journey to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our solar system.
Within 10 to 20 years, humans will begin to find answers about extraterrestrial life. “To believe now that we are alone in the universe is a little bit of an aggressive assumption,” Milner said.