Has ‘Curiosity’ Done for Manned Spacefight?

Many of us are astonished, but pleasantly so, that the Mars Lander ‘Curiosity’ made it to the surface of Mars with its quite novel landing system, making what appears to have been a perfect and near pin-point landing.

Those of us old enough to have lived through the Apollo program, and remember so well the way in which Neil Armstrong took over control of the landing from the computer, were firmly convinced that manned spaceflight was always going deliver the goods in a way in that un-manned spacecraft could not do. However, while manned spaceflight has made limited progress since Apollo, the successes on the un-manned side have been so impressive and the landing of Curiosity has taken that success to a new level.

I would like to know just how much it would cost to send a manned mission to Mars, and how many ‘Curiosity’ level missions you do for the same cost? The question which follows is how much science return those two alternatives could provide?

Picking on one issue which is parochial to Edotek, the whole business of getting mass (and therefore people) in to low-Earth orbit by means of chemical propulsion is both costly and hazardous. I heard somewhere (!) that if there were bars of gold stacked neatly on the surface of the Moon, it would not be economic, using present technology, to return them to Earth. Although we are seeing new launch vehicles appear, they are so closely related to their predecessors in their use of kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. Manufacturing cost may have come down to some degree and reliability may have been improved, but the cost of getting every kilogram into orbit is still so high and the dangers of a human being sitting on top of that chemical bomb are still so worrying.

That being so, getting people out to Mars and the other planets seems to be a daunting prospect. A few weeks ago, I watched a 1970 interview of Armstrong in which he said he was sure that ‘within his lifetime’ there would be a manned base on the Moon, comparable to those bases in Antarctica. Sadly, that wasn’t to happen, and we can fairly safely say that it won’t happen in the lifetime of Armstrong’s children.

Going back to Curiosity, I was curious about what the rocket propulsion system on the crane consisted of. It turns out that it used Aerojet’s MR80B hydrazine mono-propellant thrusters which are a close derivative of the thrusters which the Viking landers used waaaaaaaay back in the 1970’s (then produced by the company known as “Rocket Research”). So, while electronic systems and computers have moved on in enormous strides, rocket propulsion has not been able to keep up. Too much time and money wasted on foolishness like Hydrogen Peroxide and the like!

Mike Taylor

Copyright Edotek Ltd 2012

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