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January 6, 2012


Tuvok: “Apparently it is a ground vehicle from mid-twentieth century Earth.”

Paris: “It’s a 1936 Ford, actually.”

Janeway: “Mister Paris?”

Paris: “That was the manufacturing date, 1936. Ford was the name of the company that build it. Antique vehicles are a hobby of mine. Internal combustion engine, a reciprocating piston cylinder design, fuel source was a refined petroleum. Gasoline.”

Kim: “So is this an early hover car?”

Paris: “No, you’re about a century too early for that. This is about one step ahead of the horse-drawn carriage.”


I walk the dog at night and contemplate Venus, Jupiter, and Mars chasing the moon across the sky.  Then I notice a jet liner flying far above, a tiny spec of lights leaving a white trail in the starry sky.  They are wrapped in warm comfortable luxury and the security of our best aviation technology.  All I can see from down here is an aluminum spec at thirty thousand feet.  But up there the passengers may one night hear a BANG…rattle…clunketyclunketyclunkety…BANG!  How far they are from a gas station when their universe is challenged by Murphey’s Law?  And how lonely is the pilot in a small plane in the same fix?  Then I look up at Mars just beginning to rise in the sky, a distant tiny red twinkle.  What would it be like to be a man in a can going to Mars when something goes bang in the night?

You might ask the crew of Apollo Thirteen that question.  They have been there and done that.  But that was “only” a moon trip.  Consider a basketball as the earth.  The moon is a tennis ball across the room.  Our space station is flying about one inch above the earth.  Apollo was all the way across the room when the tank went BOOOOOOOM!  How lonely is that?  And the airliner is only 5 miles up, not 200 miles like the space station.  And Mars is way out there.  For a basketball scale sun the planets orbits are over a mile in diameter.  And you can’t fly a straight line to Mars, even when it is close.  You have to chase its orbit around the sun.  Get your running shoes ready for the marathon Jack!

So the auto club isn’t coming out for us.  Houston says, “We don’t have a problem dude, YOU have a problem!”  Even if I don’t have a Murphy event or a radiation holocaust we still have a loooooooong trip…are we there yet?  What does a man in a can do after two years with the other guys (and gals?) in this little can?  “Star Trek” looks like a soap opera with romantic opportunities.  I see it more like “Northern Exposure” where residents take turns indulging insanities.  Neighbors are always a trip, especially on a trip in a can.  Of course NASA always picks the best and the brightest and they would never get involved in a romantic triangle, right?,2933,250415,00.html


When I was younger I travelled on a motorcycle, wearing a snowmobile suit to stay warm.  It was trippy to be on a vehicle instead of inside of it.  I could pull over in the trees and take a nap in the snowmobile suit with no sleeping bag.  The gloves and helmet kept the mosquitoes out and it was like a big EVA.  Freedom is still prone to vulnerability, so the auto offers locked doors against the occasional “alien” sharing the highways with us.


As a contract worker I had to drive across the country with a truck and trailer.  Places in the west are so isolated I could have slept the night in the middle of the road with no passing cars.  If I had a breakdown out there I could take a long long hike for help.  I like my century for cell phones and hot showers.  One of my friends is driving a long haul truck with living quarters on board.  I went to school for commercial driving, but never went on the job.  There are few ways to get time in the gym on the road; so many truckers show the product of good truck stop eating. 


So how do we propose to go to Mars in the Orion Capsule?  I hope they can add a motor home to that unit.  Bigelow can add a little inflatable unit so we can have some private space.  Now I can travel with some comfort for a couple of years.  Mom and dad shared a “park model” mobile home a few years back.  Dad finally bought a real house after mom complained that he was breathing her air.  In space that could be a real issue. 


We can look at unmanned Mars missions to consider the risk involved.  Just don’t ask the Russians to provide your ride.  I remember the Mercury astronauts watching an Atlas missile launch that exploded.  That does not inspire a lot of confidence.  “Universe Today .com reports:

To date, 26 of the 43 missions to Mars (that’s a whopping 60%) have either failed or only been partially successful in the years since the first Marsnik 1 attempt by the Soviet Union in 1960. In total the USA/NASA has flown 20 missions, six were lost (70% success rate); the Soviet Union/Russian Federation flew 18, only two orbiters (Mars 2 and 3) were a success (11% success rate); the two ESA missions, Mars Express, and Rosetta (fly-by) were both a complete success; the single Japanese mission, Nozomi, in 1998 suffered complications en-route and never reached Mars; and the British lander, Beagle 2, famously went AWOL in 2003.


So for a Basketball size sun we are pebbles spinning for miles around the sun.  A space can is a germ like speck depending on our infallible computers and human perfection to hit a perfect trajectory.  If the great American West is isolated at night, we few humans in a can will wait even for the speedy radio signals to reach us.  Your packages from Victoria’s Secret will be delayed delivery if the supply vehicle is not faster than yours is.  Reruns of MASH and Star Trek will get very familiar before you can find out what happened to Walt on “Breaking Bad”. 

I don’t think I will rush to become a weightless wimp unable to walk on earth gravity.  I am declining fast enough as a couch potato computer geek.  And selling me a ticket on a ride where there are no tow trucks is unlikely.  I might go for a tether with ten or twenty identical vehicles in a chain to guarantee at least one operational vehicle will still be vacant when mine breaks down.  Or preposition a few gas stations with motel and repair facilities along the way.  Even the early sailing ships could land for water, food, and repair timbers.

I was about as close to Mars in my old hippy van as NASA is today.  Perhaps Amelia Earhart DID get there with aliens as Star Trek suggested.  Did she go up in that 1936 Ford truck?  For this mission I will pass along the advice my father gave me:  You need lots of professional help boy!


I’m sorry folks, but politicians and entrepreneurs who propose Mars trips are pushing a big-ticket dream.  We are not yet able to get to orbit economically or reliably.  Even Soyuz is an iffy ride after all these years.  Elon Musk pointed out that this is all bad tech without reusability.  We need to abandon the big-ticket daydreams until we invent a small ticket reality.  We’re working on that!



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