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Review: Human Missions to Mars

Human Missions to Mars: Enabling Technologies for Exploring the Red Planet
By Donald Rapp
Springer/Praxis Books, 2008
hardcover, 520 pp.
ISBN 978-3-540-72938-9
US$139.00

The study of human missions to Mars has been the subject of books for at least half a century. Dr. Wernher von Braun wrote on the human exploration of Mars in the late 1940s in what is known commonly today as The Mars Project. During the Apollo program, numerous books and monographs were written on the subject as the next logical step in the human exploration of planets in our solar system. Years later, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins wrote Missions to Mars (Grove Press, 1990). And, of course, Robert Zubrin of The Mars Society has written extensively on the subject.

All these titles embrace the views of their authors as advocates and enthusiasts. In Human Missions to Mars: Enabling Technologies for Exploring the Red Planet, Dr. Donald Rapp puts forth what he calls a skeptic’s view on the realities of sending a human mission to Mars in the 21st century. Rapp, retired chief technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, closely examines the technological aspects of mounting a human mission to Mars. To give you some idea of the scope and detail of the subjects covered in this book, the table of contents alone is nearly ten pages.

Rapp begins with the rationale for the human exploration of Mars (it’s more than trying to discover biological life forms). There are chapters devoted to the planning of space campaigns and missions; the daunting task of getting to and from Mars, which includes spacecraft mass, advanced propulsion, and trajectories in view of orbital mechanics; critical Mars mission elements, which include radiation shielding, consumables, and necessary recycling and Martian surface habitats; in situ resource utilization; and an analysis of past and present Mars mission studies.

The last chapter is controversial, as it casts serious doubts on NASA’s approach for a human mission to Mars succeeding before 2080. Why? “Unfortunately,” Rapp states bluntly, “long, sustained expensive technology developments are rarely carried through to completion at NASA.”

Rapp rightly believes any successful human mission to Mars must be preceded by a proven, long-term human presence on the Moon. He devotes a chapter to NASA’s current plans for returning astronauts to the Moon to resume and expand lunar exploration, and carefully critiques those plans. (Project Constellation would include international partners). NASA is developing Ares 1 and Ares 5 to be the launch vehicles employed for Project Constellation in future human lunar and Martian missions. Many technologies and virtually all equipment must be validated in a future human lunar exploration program before being considered for use in a human Mars mission.

The last chapter is controversial, as it casts serious doubts on NASA’s approach for a human mission to Mars succeeding before 2080. Why? “Unfortunately,” Rapp states bluntly, “long, sustained expensive technology developments are rarely carried through to completion at NASA.” Advanced technologies—enabling technologies as Rapp calls them—are at the core of a successful human mission to Mars. Nevertheless, Rapp believes one day these technological hurdles will be cleared and the financial burdens met. The nations of the world would benefit in ways tangible and intangible from human missions to Mars. Rapp includes three very comprehensive appendices covering solar energy on the Moon, solar energy on Mars, and water on Mars.

Human Missions to Mars is hardbound, and Rapp’s use of supporting formula, graphs, and technical illustrations (coupled with its rather steep cover price) make it clear that this volume is meant to be used as a reference book in research institutions, technical libraries, and scientific organizations. However, Rapp’s engaging writing style and pragmatic view on this subject also makes it an interesting read for the armchair Mars explorer wanting to learn what it will take to send human missions to Mars.


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