Halfway to Mars: A Conversation with Eric Choi

Eric Choi is a Canadian science fiction writer and a professional aerospace engineer. Not only does he write about going to the stars — he’s helped to build things that actually have. His written works include a small but unique collection of eloquent and poignant works. The most recent, “Son of Heaven,” appeared in the Prix Aurora Award–winning anthology, The Dragon and the Stars, which he co-edited with Derwin Mak.

Eric Choi is a Canadian science fiction writer and a professional aerospace engineer. Not only does he write about going to the stars — he’s helped to design things that actually have. In addition to working on the Phoenix lander (which successfully landed near Mars’s North pole in 2008), Choi made it into the top forty of the Canadian Space Agency’s 2009 astronaut recruitment drive, and was at the Kennedy Space Center on the fateful day that the space shuttle Columbia failed to arrive. His written works include a small but unique collection of eloquent and poignant works. The most recent, “Son of Heaven,” appeared in the Prix Aurora Award–winning anthology,The Dragon and the Stars, which he co-edited with Derwin Mak.

The Red Planet has long held a special place in our imaginations, but we now live in a time when a human mission to another planet might be more than fantasy. Choi says that we do have a blueprint for such a mission to Mars, “and have [had] for a long time. The first modern conceptualization of a manned mission to Mars appeared in 1952, in Werner von Braun’s The Mars Project. It detailed the technical specifications for a trip to Mars, and was picked up by Walt Disney of all people. His ideas appeared in Collier’s magazine and in several episodes of Tomorrowland, including a reusable shuttle that would make trips to low Earth orbit to put together a space station, at which a series of interplanetary ships would be built for going to Mars. For better or worse, we’ve more or less been following that model ever since.”

Von Braun’s work is one of the most influential books ever written on Martian exploration. We’ve discovered much more since then, such as the need to protect astronauts and equipment from radiation when they pass through the Van Allen Belts and venture into interplanetary space, and the fact that the Martian atmosphere is too thin for the winged gliders he proposed, but many parts his plan are still valid.

“Many of the more modern departures from his ideas are based on attempts to make the missions more affordable,” Choi explains. “In the 1990s Robert Zubrin and some engineers from Lockheed came up with a plan called Mars Direct, which in many ways would be much cheaper and easier than von Braun’s massive flagship approach. Basically they proposed sending an uncrewed vehicle to Mars first with equipment capable of producing fuel from materials available on Mars. The crew would then arrive on a second ship and find the first ship all fuelled and ready for the journey home. By manufacturing the fuel for the return journey on Mars rather than carrying it from Earth, vastly smaller and more affordable ships could be used. That second ship, which would also have equipment for making fuel, could then act as the advance vehicle for a third mission, and so on. This idea of Mars Direct was very influential to my writing. My first story, ‘Dedication,’ shamelessly used the plan as inspiration.”

[Editor’s note: “Dedication,” for which Choi was given an Asimov’s award, appeared in the November 1994 issue of Asimov’s.]

Choi says we still have some hurdles to pass before a trip to the Red Planet can be a reality. “The next step is closer to home. Thanks to all the orbiters, landers and rovers we have a pretty good idea what Mars is like, and where we would want to send people. What we need to work on is tech development. It’s kind of ironic that space missions look very high tech — but many things haven’t changed much in forty years. For example, we’re still using chemical rockets, disposable launch systems, and solar arrays with low conversion efficiency — although we are getting better at closing the life system loop. Above all we need to lower the cost of getting into space.

“These types of things may not be the most glamorous or get headlines, but it’s kind of like going to school. It’s the fundamentals that we need to master before humans can successfully explore Mars and the rest of the Solar System. If we get them right we’ll have a toolbox of low-cost technologies to take us anywhere in the solar system — the Moon, asteroids, Lagrangian Points. That’s something that’s missing from our current vision of space, which is very mission-oriented. We need to get the foundations right or it will continue to be expensive and complex. My great fear is that it will eventually prove to be unsustainable, just as the Apollo Moon landings were cancelled when it was no longer economically or politically viable to continue.”

Sustainability, it seems, is an unavoidable issue for space exploration. It’s not easy to justify multi-billion dollar expenses in any country, much less in one facing economic turmoil and spiralling debt.  There was a time when the space program was so tightly tied to geopolitical objectives that practically any expense could be justified.  For a few decades, the United States and the USSR were locked in an ambitious technological battle to win the “space race” — competing to win a physical race to space (and later to the Moon), and more importantly, competing to prove the strength of their economic ideologies. These efforts were substantially grounded in geopolitical strategy and the technological advancements of the space program were in many cases tightly tied to military developments. During the early days of the space program, sustainability was quite simply not a concern. Several decades later, the Cold War has faded into history and rising economic concerns are making the costs of space exploration harder to stomach. NASA even ended its famed space shuttle program last year and is now relying instead on private companies and even their former Russian adversaries to ferry US astronauts to space.

“Many wonderful things came out of the space program — both in terms of socioeconomic benefits, and technological benefits like stimulating computer development. Perhaps more importantly, it also gave us a better sense of the fragility of the Earth. It’s the old adage that ‘We’ve gone to the Moon, but we’ve discovered the Earth’ — encapsulated by that influential picture of the lush blue Earth rising over the barren grey Moon. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Earth Day started shortly thereafter. But in a way,  I think we got ahead of ourselves in the 1960s. Yes, we put people on the Moon, but it took a tremendous effort on the part of the United States, in terms of both people and of money. If you look at the tech of the 1960s, they were literally using slide rules. Slide rules! By the standards of the 21st century it was very crude. The goal was achieved in a brute force way — using huge rockets like the Saturn 5 — and at the end of the day the only thing that came back to Earth was this tiny little capsule at the top, and even it could not be reused. The bottom line is that sustainability must be the cornerstone of any future space program.”

Mars’s place in popular culture wasn’t always so closely caught up with the logistics of travelling there. Not long ago, it was the mystery of what we might find there that drove our collective imagination. For close to a century we looked for evidence of planetary neighbours and advanced civilizations, and used the planet as a convenient setting for fantastic adventures in foreign lands — from the great 1917 Edgar Rice Burroughs classic, A Princess of Mars, to a massive wave of B-movies and pulp fiction (read: Mars Attacks). Our earliest images of the planet were painted by this conviction, by the desire to find something more fantastic than a barren ball of rust.

Choi describes how our love affair with Mars began. “In 1877, [Italian astronomer Giovanni] Schiaperelli believed he saw striations on the surface of Mars, and called them canali. I’m told that canali in Italian simply means canyon or channel. Anyway, Schiaperelli’s work was  picked up a few years afterwards by the American astronomer Percival Lowell, who, due to the limitations of his equipment, thought that he also saw these striations and jumped to the conclusion they were artificial. Who wouldn’t have liked to believe that there were advanced life forms on Mars? There was an appeal to Lowell’s idea that there was an advanced civilization using massive channels to funnel water from the poles to the thirsty cities near the equator.

“Given the state of knowledge at the time, I don’t think this was a totally unreasonable hypothesis. At the time, the Panama Canal was in the process of being dug, and canals were considered a great symbol of technological prowess. Framed in that context, it makes sense for people to consider apparently artificial canals as hopeful evidence of advanced life forms.

“As telescopes improved, we started to realise that Mars might not be as nice a place as we had imagined. Finally, in the 1960s, the Mariner spacecraft sent back black-and-white images of Mars that looked desolate, a lot like the Moon. It was followed by the Viking landers in the 1970s, which returned ambiguous results about the presence of life. This inadvertently scuttled interest in Mars until the late 80s and early 90s when there was a Mars resurgence thanks to exciting new space missions and also the great fictional works of Kim Stanley Robinson and many others. It was like the genre writers said, ‘OK Mars, we love you for what you are. You still have an awesome geology, the biggest canyon and the highest volcano in the Solar System. You may not be Barsoom and there are no princesses, but you’re still a great setting for fiction.

“And some of it is great.  I absolutely loved ‘The Emperor of Mars’ by Allen Steele, which won a Hugo in 2011. It was richly deserved. Steele’s story was a very heartfelt homage to the stuff that we’ve been talking about. The real-life Phoenix Mars Lander, which I had the privilege of working on, is central to the story. One of the payloads on the lander is a DVD of Mars-related fiction and artwork, sent by the Planetary Society, called Visions of Mars.”

Even if the recent John Carter movie has been disappointing at the box office, the time may be right once more for Mars to capture our imaginations again. “Collectively, I think that we long for an unsettled frontier — and for one that resembles what we already know. If we look around the solar system, Mars is the most hospitable and the most like home. I remember reading about the Viking program [the first successful landing on Mars]. I recall Ray Bradbury’s comments upon viewing the pictures of Mars and I think he said something like ‘it was the first place we’ve been that looks like a place.’ After all, we’d already been to the Moon’s stark landscape — Buzz Aldrin described it using the phrase ‘magnificent desolation.’ It was beautiful, but hardly a welcoming place. We are fascinated with Mars for two reasons. First, the possibility that at some point in the past it was more Earth-like and could have harboured life. And second, because it’s a place where we could perhaps go sometime in the future and establish a second branch of humanity.”

As proof that public interest in the Red Planet is on the rise, Newt Gingrich recently made an off-handed campaign promise to send a manned mission to Mars. The audience cheered — but critics attacked the plan for being a technologically impractical and colossally expensive idea that would take decades longer than the eight years Gingrich suggested. Away from the world of politics, the reaction from other communities was mixed. Some applauded the interest in extraterrestrial exploration, while others wished for a more realistic plan — or any plan. The picture in Canada isn’t much better.

“The budget of the Canadian Space Agency has been essentially stagnant for a decade — and actually declining if you consider inflation. My hope is that a future government will recognize the importance of space and science and exploration, both to help solve some of our problems here on Earth, and also to encourage the next generation to consider careers in science and technology and mathematics — both for space and for solving the pressing issues of the day, especially in respect to the environment and climate change.

“In that vein, people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye do a great public service by popularizing science and making it accessible to everyone. Ultimately, science and engineering are essential to so much of what we do and to addressing the significant challenges we face as a society. We need smart policymaking, and that requires a scientifically literate population. That’s how we detect the baloney, as Carl Sagan once put it. It’s increasingly important to have a skeptical viewpoint and to defend reason and rationality. I was a huge Sagan fan, and I think the world is a darker place without him. He really inspired people, and when it comes down to it, there are three things you need to make something work: People, technology, and money. If you have people and money, you can develop the technology.  If you have people and technology, you can raise the money.  But if you don’t have people, you’ve got nothing.”

Eric Choi has an essay titled Making Mars a Nicer Place to Live in the collection Rocket Science, forthcoming from Mutation Press in April. You can read a selection of his works online at http://www.aerospacewriter.ca/

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