Will We Live on Mars?

If we flew on the cheap and lived on the Red Planet's resources, we could be a two-world species within a generation

There's probably no special reason to start looking forward to October 2007„unless you're one of the four people who could be traveling to Mars that month. October 2007 is a good time to begin your journey, since right about then, Earth and Mars will be drifting into an alignment that will allow you to make the trip in less than eight months. It's impossible to say what part of Mars you'll be touching down on, but odds are you'll land somewhere near the broad equatorial belt. While temperatures elsewhere on Mars fall to a murderous Ü220ÁF, they can climb to a shirt-sleeve 68ÁF in the planet's tropics„not that Mars' thin, toxic air would ever allow you to strip down to your shirt sleeves.

Inhospitable as such a Red Planet redoubt would be, two years after you arrive, another crew will show up, and another two years after that, and another after that. By 2017„about the time that children born this year approach voting age„mankind's first tiny settlement on another world may be taking hold. Even for a supposedly spacefaring people, dreaming of Mars is dreaming big.

Back when Apollo astronauts were routinely bunny-hopping on the nearby moon, Mars seemed like an obvious next goal. But during the past 25 years, the best we've been able to muster has been a few unmanned Martian probes. After the two most recent ones famously flamed out, and after last week's scathing report blaming nasa mismanagement for the failures, even that seems beyond us.

And yet Mars is back on the cosmic itinerary. Scientists at nasa and in the private sector have been quietly scribbling out flight plans and sketching out vehicles that„so they say„could make manned landings on the Red Planet not only possible but also economically practical. The hardware, they believe, is largely in hand. The funds, they argue, could be within reach. "Within 25 years," says nasa's Bret Drake, director of mission studies at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, "I project that we could have human exploration of Mars being conducted routinely."

The key to reaching Mars is doing it smart and doing it cheap. In 1989, during the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, President Bush challenged nasa to figure out how to put human beings on Mars. The space agency came back with an elephantine 30-year plan that involved construction bays and fuel depots in low-Earth orbit and carried a jaw-dropping price tag of $450 billion.

What drove up the cost of the project was the size of the spacecraft needed to reach Mars, and what drove up the size of the spacecraft was all the fuel and other consumables it would need to carry with it on so long a trip. But while Mars is indeed remote„at its farthest it's 1,000 times as distant as the moon„it has a lot of things the moon doesn't, most notably an atmosphere. And that makes all the difference.

For the past decade„ever since nasa's 1989 proposal laid its half-trillion-dollar egg„the space community has been intrigued by a mission scenario known as the Mars Direct plan. Developed by engineers at Martin Marietta Astronautics, a nasa contractor, Mars Direct calls not merely for visiting the Red Planet but also for living off the alien land.

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