* Prices may differ from that shown
This week, NASA reignited the 'is there life on Mars?' discussion with an announcement that meteorite ALH84001 does indeed contain fossils of ancient Martian bacteria.
This proclamation was made 12 years ago and discounted at the time due to lack of concrete evidence. New analytical techniques have, apparently, re-convinced NASA that the features seen in ALH84001 were produced by biological rather than chemical processes.
It remains to be seen what the scientific community makes of this round of claims for life on Mars, but what is clear is that examination of one small meteorite is not enough. To answer the question of life on Mars, we must go there, not with robotic rovers, but with astronaut scientists.
NASA has always indicated that it would send a manned mission to Mars 'within 30 years', but we're no closer to people landing on Mars now than when the last Apollo mission ended in the 1970s.
NASA's excuse for this is cost. The agency commissioned the "90-day report" on the issue and its findings indicated that it would cost $450 billion dollars to send people to the red planet. This literally astronomical amount is the reason that manned Mars missions are nowhere near to getting off the ground.
Robert Zubrin does not agree with the findings of the 90-day report: he believes that a manned mission can be achieved much cheaper than NASA say. In his book "The Case for Mars", Zubrin sets out his own blueprint for getting to the red planet.
Zubrin is an ex-NASA engineer and has put together his plan, "Mars Direct", based on current technology, rather than hoping for future advancements. In the book, Zubrin pours scorn on the 90-day report, stating that the need for "Battlestar Galactica" type spaceships (i.e. huge manned craft) is unnecessary. What's needed is simply the type of ships used for Apollo (i.e. 40 year old designs!), to transport men and materials separately to a landing point on Mars.
He argues two points. Firstly, sending all of the habitation modules and kit separately reduces the cost enormously (several small launches being cheaper than one huge one). Secondly we should 'live off the land' on Mars. Instead of taking all the fuel needed for a return journey, it should be manufactured on Mars.
This rocket fuel manufacture on site is called 'in-situ propellant production'. Using 'O' Level chemistry, rocket fuel is produced from CO2 (abundant in the Martian atmosphere) and a by-product is oxygen, which the astronauts can breathe. In-situ propellant production brings the costs down dramatically.
In 'The Case for Mars', Zubrin discusses each obstacle to a successful mission and shows that it can be performed easily and cheaply. Getting there, living on the red planet, exploring using rovers, and the science that can be achieved with people 'on the ground' are explained in detail.
'Mars Direct' has a $10 billion dollar price tag. This is a large amount of money, but much less than the 90-day report, is achievable within the current NASA budget, and is, of course, much less than Britain alone has given to the banks to keep them afloat in just one year.
In the book, Zubrin goes much further than simply getting to Mars. The science fiction favourite, terraforming, is examined in detail, too. This involves manipulating a planet's environment to make it more habitable for humans. Mars is cold and dry with an un-breathable atmosphere. Zubrin shows how to manipulate the Martian atmosphere to make it warm, wet, with breathable oxygen.
This would be the greatest endeavour the human race has ever undertaken and would take decades to see any effect. Once again though, the science is elementary, just on a planet wide scale (basically, we need to pump huge volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to create climate change on a grand scale: sort of what we're apparently doing on Earth, albeit unwittingly!).
For fans of science and astronomy, and for those interested in what the human race is capable of, this is a fascinating book. I found it completely compelling as I read what we could achieve, in quite a short space of time, following Zubrin's plan. We could have a colony on Mars, giving us the answers to whether life existed or is still present within 10 years.
As well as being a competent engineer, Zubrin is quite zealous about his subject and is an accomplished writer. His disgust at NASA's inactivity is evident in each chapter and it's obvious that he truly believes in what he's written. Zubrin's readable, energetic, and convincing writing style made this a real page turner, for me.
Mars Direct has, of course, been presented to NASA and rejected. It appears that the agency is now so risk averse that they will not tolerate any risk at all (yet, as Zubrin says, exploration IS risky!). Despite this, elements of Mars Direct are being developed for future Mars missions (such as in-situ propellant production).
Unless we follow a plan like Zubrin's we are doomed to be always '30 years away' from a human landing on Mars. Ancient Martian meteorites might be as close as we get to finding life on Mars for a very long time.
The book is available from Amazon for £8.11.