Friday, March 12, 2010

Book Review: The Case for Mars

I have had the unique opportunity to meet Robert Zubrin at a couple of International Space Development Conferences. He is a brilliant, funny, visionary, cantankerous engineer who has become a serious leader in the space advocacy community. His personal style comes across in his writing. He's a bright guy with a serious ax to grind about Mars, how we should get there, and how NASA is screwing up. That said, I don't agree with him on everything.

In response to a comment from a reader, I thought I'd throw in what Dr. Zubrin has said about NASA. Most of his criticism is based upon NASA's handling of "the 90-Day Report," the report the agency submitted to President Bush (Sr.) after he called for a manned mission to Mars. What the folks at NASA came up with was a huge, visionary program that would require every new technology known to manned space activity, from solar power to zero-gravity construction to cold fusion. Oh yeah, a lot of that hadn't been invented yet, would have taken 30 years to accomplish, and would have cost taxpayers $450 billion. It is the bureaucratic mindset that sets Zubrin off.
Mixed in with all the specific technical information are history lessons about exploration and its difficulties, as well as insights on why we need to explore and the value of Mars itself. Since the release of "The Case for Mars," Dr. Zubrin has created his own space advocacy group called The Mars Society, which has set up its own Mars habitat simulator in an arctic desert of Canada.
He has also taken to describing ways in which the government can best fund the mission, such as offering a "Mars Prize" of $30 billion that would only be awarded to a successful mission. Zubrin shamelessly invokes Kennedy, Lindbergh, Frederick Jackson Turner, and others, and jumps in with a "can-do" attitude that will remind the reader of NASA or "Star Trek" in their better days. After reading Zubrin, you find yourself wondering, "Jeez, why AREN'T we going?"

Zubrin also values the frontier. A frontier provides the hope for escape from current problems--government, social hierarchies, ennui. A frontier can generate new materials (like the gold out of California), new ideas of government and freedom, and more potential for innovation and upward mobility. Governments that have to cope with an expanding, dynamic society cannot turn their energies toward controlling limited resources and a stable population.

Mind you, in the current political environment Zubrin's vision isn't likely to gain much traction, especially when the President wants to kill America's human spaceflight program (which included a heavy-lift launch vehicle named, like Zubrin's, Ares). But one should have have space to dream, and Zubrin dreams BIG, and we could always use a little more of that.

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