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Mars or Bust

"Yes! Yes!" Robert Zubrin smacks a fist into his open hand as he hunches over a graph showing several spikes. He points to the tallest. "Methane," he shouts gleefully.

Zubrin trots back across the lab to a plumber's twisted nightmare of convoluted tubes, condensers and gauges wired to a board. His assistant, Brian Frankie, kneels beside the apparatus, trying to stuff dry ice into a jerry-rigged foam cone.

"On Mars, we won't need the dry ice," Zubrin explains. "On Mars, we'll have all the cold you can use."

Zubrin is a short, unremarkable-looking 45-year-old...except for his eyes. Green, they shine as though illuminated from behind by his rather remarkable brain and, as Zubrin elucidates his vision of man's future on Mars, they tend to roll or stare off into space. This passable imitation of a mad scientist is complemented by the fact that Zubrin is balding on top, like a tonsured monk, and what remains of his dark, curly hair sticks out at odd angles because he's constantly raking it with his fingers as he brainstorms through each new problem with Frankie.

But Zubrin is no mad scientist. Among his colleagues in the aerospace industry, even his critics won't go further than describing him as brash, egotistical and abrasive; his admirers call him a visionary. "Sometimes you need that out-of-the-box creativity to get things rolling," concedes Linda Shahan, a spokeswoman with the state's largest aerospace company, Lockheed Martin, which Zubrin left in 1996 to pursue his dream free of "restrictions and constrictions."

The crude device that he and Frankie labor over in their cramped, rented lab may well be as important to the exploration of Mars as the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were to Columbus's voyage. Essentially, Zubrin's machine is designed to suck in the Mars atmosphere of carbon dioxide and spit out the ingredients necessary to make water, oxygen and rocket fuel that would support human explorers while they were on the planet and then send them back home again.

Zubrin is not the only Coloradan whose mind is on Mars today. Even as he watches his graphs, Lockheed Martin scientists are following the path of the Mars Global Surveyor--which the company designed and built on a government contract--as it approaches Earth's nearest neighbor on its mission to map the planet.

And this just two months after the July 4 landing of the Mars Pathfinder, with its Tonka-toy-like rover, Sojourner. Perhaps the most appealing space stunt since Neil Armstrong took one small step for a man and a giant leap for mankind, Pathfinder represents just the beginning of a flurry of interplanetary enterprises, most of them aimed at Mars.

Lulled by a decade of nearly routine--and largely ignored--space-shuttle trips, which exemplified the post-Apollo reluctance to cut the apron strings to Mother Earth, the country's imagination again seems ready to blast off for outer space. And standing by to reap the benefits, after ten years of downsizing and layoffs, are Colorado's aerospace companies: from the giant, 10,000-employee Lockheed Martin, to Boulder's Ball Aerospace, with its 2,000 workers, to Zubrin's mouse-that-roared Pioneer Astronautics in Lakewood, with its six-person staff of Zubrinites.

While Sojourner stumbles across the surface of Mars, sending R2D2-cuddly images back to Earth, man is fast approaching the day when he will be right up there alongside machine. Approaching that day, in fact, faster than a speeding rocket.

Depending on whether you subscribe to Zubrin's schedule of events or the more cautious calendar of Lockheed Martin, we are ten to twenty years from stepping off the mother planet--not to some lifeless, airless moon forever dependent on Earth, but to another planet that, with a little American ingenuity, could be the next frontier of human civilization.

Sitting in today's schoolrooms are tomorrow's first Mars explorers and, perhaps, future settlers whose children will be born on Mars.

Man has always looked up at the stars and wondered. The Greeks and Romans believed the characters and creatures of their mythology had been placed in the heavens as warning or reward by capricious gods and goddesses. Native Americans thought the stars were holes poked in a blanket that allowed light in from outside. And then there was the Judeo-Christian version: "And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the Earth."

To question such beliefs was to be labeled insane or even heretical. In 1600, Italian Renaissance humanist Giordano Bruno was burned alive in the Inquisition. "Bruno was murdered for having alleged in debate and in writing that the universe was infinite, that the stars were suns like our own, with other planets comprising inhabited worlds like the Earth orbiting around them," wrote Zubrin in his 1996 book, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. "Thus, observers on those other worlds would look up and see our Sun with the Earth circling it in their sky, their heavens, and therefore, 'We are in heaven.'"  

Bruno was not the only one to suffer for science. Many of those we now consider heroes of the Age of Reason were pariahs in their own time. Galileo, for example, was threatened with death and kept confined to his house for decades for merely reporting what he observed to be the truth. Others, like Columbus, were labeled madmen and cranks who would meet their ends falling off the flat surface of the world and into the hungry maw of alien creatures.

Still, men kept risking ridicule and worse to look beyond the horizons of their known world. They went on to prove their critics not only shortsighted, but wrong.

To reach Lockheed Martin's Deer Creek Canyon facility, you pass through a crack in the bones of an ancient mountain range. Then the land suddenly opens up to reveal a glass-and-steel building, sitting high on a hill, that looks as though it might have come from another world. Inside, the buzz of many voices comes from behind gray partitions that separate the lobby from other areas of the building.

The lobby itself is a museum devoted to the corporation that originally came to Denver in the mid-Fifties as the Martin Company, with a contract to build intercontinental ballistic missiles; through a series of mergers, it transformed into Martin Marietta and now Lockheed Martin. Against one row of partitions stand a variety of model rockets. Some represent warbirds that were once topped with nuclear weapons. Others went into space bearing the Gemini spacecraft and continue delivering satellites to this day.

Perched on a platform in the middle of the lobby is a model of the insect-like Viking lander. The real thing sat on the surface of Mars in 1976 looking for, among other things, signs of life. "They never found little green men but did discover the building blocks for life and returned to scientists thousands of photos of Earth's closest neighbor," announces the sign accompanying the model.

Along other walls are mementos of more space projects in which the company played a role--sometimes major, sometimes minor. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1986. The interplanetary spacecraft Magellan, which mapped the surface of Venus using radar in 1990. The space shuttle, for which the company provides the huge external tank and a variety of other instruments. The as-yet-unbuilt Cassini spacecraft, which will venture to Saturn.

There's also a painting of the Mars Global Surveyor, which looks something like a large moth with its antennae. It's September 10, and tomorrow the first of the MGS orbiters will enter the Mars atmosphere.

Near the Viking lander is a white spacesuit. Attached to it is an enormous white plastic backpack: the "Manned Maneuvering Unit," which every fan of Buck Rogers knows should simply have been called a jetpack.

The first man to ever don the MMU and step out of a spaceship without a safety tether strides across the room. Bruce McCandless II, age sixty, gray-haired and blue-eyed, still looks like he has the right stuff.

Born in 1937 into a longtime Navy family, as a boy McCandless was a fan of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comics. But the pivotal book for him was Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel. Two inches thick, when it came out in the Fifties it moved space travel from the realm of fiction into the world of possibility.

There was little question that McCandless would attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis, as his father and grandfather had before him. He was a year away from graduation when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957.

"It was very obvious that the space age was open and that we felt very, very challenged," he recalls. Until then, there had been agreement around the McCandless dinner table that while space travel was conceiveable, it would not become reality until the end of the century, and Bruce's father had steered him in the direction of more familiar craft, like battleships.

"Actually, I was fascinated with nuclear submarines and thought I might go in that direction," McCandless says. "But after Sputnik I changed course to fighter aircraft in the hope that I could get into the space program...and as it turned out, I was in the right place at the right time."

The nation's imagination was galvanized in February 1962, when President John F. Kennedy likened space to a new ocean. "And I believe that the United States must sail on it," he pronounced, "and be in a position second to none."  

Calling it an act of faith, Kennedy set a goal of reaching the moon by 1970. And his vision lived on after he died, as young men kept stepping forward, eager to be strapped to the top of a large rocket filled with volatile fuel and hurtled toward the firmament. McCandless was accepted into NASA's space program in 1966, in the sixth class of would-be astronauts that also included Coloradans Jack Swigert and Vance Brand.

He'd already missed his shot at the Mercury and Gemini programs but was right on time for Apollo. Initially, Apollo was designed not just to put a man on the moon as a visitor but to establish a lunar base as the next step toward Mars.

"Nobody thought we would be so successful so rapidly," recalls McCandless. Although there were certainly setbacks, particularly the fire that killed three astronauts on board Apollo 10 before it even left the ground, enthusiasm stayed high. And on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped from the Apollo 11 landing craft Eagle and uttered the words that would go down in history as surely as the Gettysburg Address: "That was one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Back in Houston, the man sitting at the control desk when those words came flying back to Earth was Bruce McCandless. "For weeks before he left, me and the others kept bugging him about what he was going to say, and he kept saying stuff like, 'Boy, it's dusty up here,'" McCandless recalls and laughs.

But even as Armstrong was taking a second step, the Apollo program was being torn apart. The race to the moon had been a pet project of Democratic presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Republican Richard Nixon was in office now, and he decided that the space program would be scaled back in order for the country to concentrate on projects with more "terrestrial benefits," such as launching satellites.

There would be six more landings on the moon, but Apollo's goal of establishing a lunar base was scrapped. Rather than sailing across the new ocean, NASA's next mission was to build cargo vessels--the space shuttles--that, like merchant vessels before Columbus's exploration, would not sail out of sight of land.

Nearly thirty years later, McCandless's craggy face cannot hide his disappointment. Although he was never able to confirm it, he says he was told that he was in line to fly on Apollo 19 or 20; the chance to plant his own feet on alien soil was gone.

There were more disappointments. Other astronauts went up on Skylab I. He was scheduled to be on the crew of Skylab II, but it never got any farther off the ground than where it now hangs in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

By 1983, McCandless was beginning to wonder whether he'd ever fly into space at all. NASA had never lacked for eager astronaut candidates, and the competitive jockeying for position took its toll. There were the yearly physicals, which didn't get any easier as his thirties disappeared and then his forties began to fly by. There was the constant worry about funding and the downsizing of the space agency since Apollo. Some men quit. But as frustrated as he was, McCandless kept shooting for the stars.

Finally, McCandless was notified that he would be a member of the crew for the 1984 space-shuttle launch. Although delighted to finally be selected, he was a little disappointed to learn that he would not be doing the flying. But NASA made up for it with a plum assignment: Would he be willing to be the first to test the Manned Maneuvering Unit in space?

"It took me about a half-second to think it over," he says. "Would I? Heck, yes!"

After waiting so many years, McCandless's emotions at liftoff were more relief than anything else. "It's like going on a vacation," he says. "You pack the station wagon, fill it with gas, check the map, and talk about the destination with the wife until you get in the car, shut the door, and we're finally on our way."

Mission Control gave him four days to get acclimated to space before trying the MMU. He'd rehearsed the procedure underwater in a shuttle mockup, and at first this didn't seem much different. "Not until I looked up and saw the stars and the Earth," McCandless says. And even then, he remembers that his main feelings were of "professional pride and thankfulness."

Floating alongside the shuttle at 17,000 mph, one of the first things he noticed was that space--at least this space--was anything but silent. "Everybody was talking to me," he complains. "But to show I was relaxed, I got a little dig back at Neil. I said, 'That may have been one small step for Neil, but it was a heck of a big leap for me.'"  

McCandless's trip was the tenth launching of the space shuttle. His craft's name was Challenger. Fifteen launches later, in January 1986, Challenger would explode at liftoff, killing everyone on board, including schoolteacher Christine McAuliffe. After that, the space-shuttle program went on hiatus for two years. McCandless had flown his second, and last, shuttle mission in 1988. That time, he helped to repair the Hubble Space Telescope--work far more significant than simply fixing an expensive piece of machinery. The job proved that large equipment could be assembled and repaired in space, an important hurdle for those who believe that the piece-by-piece assembly of space stations and large interplanetary rockets while still in Earth's orbit is the way to get to Mars. In a sense, McCandless had opened up new opportunities for space handymen.

When McCandless retired from the Navy in 1990--not because he was no longer interested in flying, but because that's how the Navy ran its ship--he went to work for Martin Marietta as a liaison between the company and NASA.

The Challenger tragedy took the nation's taste for adventure down with it, but it led to unexpected benefits for companies like Martin Marietta. The space shuttle, which had been designed as a reuseable launch vehicle, could have signaled the end of one-time-use rockets like the Titan, which was scheduled to be phased out in an enormous loss for the company. But now NASA recognized that it couldn't rely on just one type of vehicle for all of its launch capabilities. And NASA had other projects, too, that McCandless would work on at Martin.

Although robotic exploration of space is a necessary first step, McCandless says human exploration must follow, because machines cannot duplicate off-the-cuff, human ingenuity. And, he adds, we must continue to challenge ourselves or risk stagnation. "The Apollo missions were mainly strategic," he says. "We wanted to show the world what we were capable of doing. But I never met a single guy in the program who was there for that reason. We were there for the personal challenge or to pursue scientific truths."

The apathy the public has been showing the shuttle program is a problem of perception, McCandless says. He believes that, to some degree, NASA wanted the launches and landings to be so routine that the shuttle would be viewed as reliable transportation for getting satellites into Earth orbit. But the launches and landings were so routine that they also bored the American public.

Now it's time to aim high again. The push to Mars, McCandless points out, has the added benefit of bringing the world together with a common goal--not to mention sharing costs.

"Despite the jokes about Mir, which I think are unfair, we've learned a lot working with the Russians," he says. "After Apollo, we had to make a choice between a space station or a reuseable launch vehicle. We chose the space shuttle. About the same time, though we wouldn't know it for many years, they were faced with the same choice. They chose Mir.

"Now we have the advantage of combining our expertise. Now we can experience firsthand what living for extended periods of time in space is like--and even, considering recent events, how to deal with difficult and dangerous situations."

From there McCandless can easily foresee space tourism in the near future. "I hear the Japanese are already planning a hotel," he says. "We may soon be to the point of saying, 'Let's see, I climbed Everest last year. This year I think I'll try Mons Olympus on Mars.'"

And when those first manned flights leave for Mars, he'll watch with great envy. "Once an adventurer, always an adventurer," he says.

McCandless lives with his wife in the mountains west of Denver, away from the lights of the city. Sometimes, especially on dry, cold winter nights, he looks up at the innumerable stars and recalls the vision he saw through the gold-tinted visor of his space suit.

A laptop computer tells him when man-made satellites will be passing overhead. Three years ago he watched as Mir and the space shuttle came within three inches of each other--from an earthly perspective, at least.

"It was a beautiful sight," he says, sighing. "I was certainly hit with a twinge of nostalgia. Then again, my wife has a long list of things for me to do right here."

The Red Planet. Mars, named after the Roman god of war. The place where men are from and women are not.  

A distant, slightly ruddy speck of light, it has long been a part of our cultural mythology and our literature: from Edgar Rice Burroughs's fantasies of a planet inhabited by princes and waiting-to-be rescued princesses to Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, in which the single human survivor of a Mars exploratory expedition is brought back to Earth after learning to "grok" from Martians. Sixty years ago, Orson Welles scared the bejesus out of his radio listeners with War of the Worlds, whose terrifying Martian invaders were finally vanquished by Earth's atmosphere. And just last year, humans again defeated the Martians, this time through yodeling, in the movie Mars Attacks!

The notion of a high form of Martian life has not always been relegated to fiction. For years it was accepted that there were "canals" on Mars, proof of the existence of an ancient civilization. The canal theory was not disproven until 1965, and even today, supermarket tabloids regularly trot out a photograph that purports to be of a humanoid face staring up from the surface of Mars, built there for unknown reasons by an advanced people.

You don't have to think the planet is inhabited by monsters carrying ray guns to get excited about the possibility of life there, though. Backed up by evidence collected from the Pathfinder mission, mainstream scientists now believe that Mars was once a wetter, warmer planet that could have supported simple organisms, which may be alive even now after retreating into the soil or into geothermal pools beneath the surface. And although there are no canals, rivers once flooded the red plains of Mars.

It is a planet of enormous natural beauty lying beneath a salmon-colored sky. Valles Marineris is the longest (2,500 miles) and deepest (six miles) known canyon in the solar system; at 24 kilometers above the barren plain, Olympus Mons is the highest volcano on any planet.

Benton C. Clark III is the chief scientist for astronautics at Lockheed Martin's Waterton Canyon facility, ten miles to the north of Deer Creek Canyon. Compared to that space-age facility, the Waterton complex is a sprawling mess of square buildings and towers. This is where they actually build the rockets and spacecraft.

Born in Oklahoma City in 1937, Clark used to watch those old Buck Rogers serials, complete with sparklers sticking out of the back of spaceships that danced across the screen on the end of fishing line. In sixth grade he even wrote a paper about Mars. But despite a pervasive interest in science, it took the Air Force to turn him into one of the world's top interplanetary scientists.

Clark was studying nuclear engineering on an Air Force ROTC scholarship when the Russians launched Sputnik. "I was going to build all those nuclear reactors that everybody was going to be using for their electricity," he says with a smile.

Out of college and owing a three-year obligation to the Air Force, he begged not to be sent to Albuquerque, where the Air Force had its special-weapons program. Albuquerque, of course, was where he was sent. But the Air Force had something other than weapons in mind for Clark: The brass wanted him in their fledgling space program.

Air Force leaders believed theirs was the natural agency to lead the American race to space, and they'd been working hard at launching their own rockets when Sputnik beat them to it. Now they wanted to build a space station where astronauts could sit with telescopes and spy on the Russians, and they wanted Clark to start researching the hazards of putting humans in space.

After his tour of duty was up, Clark left the Air Force but continued pursuing his research in biophysics. He went to work developing instruments that would one day fly on the Gemini and Skylab missions and also signed on with NASA as a consultant on Apollo. In 1969 he had two major contracts--including one to develop the means to measure radiation exposure for humans in space--when he learned his projects had been pulled.

Casting about for something new, he heard about the Viking mission, whose goal was to send an orbiter and a lander to Mars. While the orbiter photographed the surface, the lander was to conduct a series of tests on the ground, including one that would search for life in the planet's soil.

Clark submitted a proposal to have the lander also test the chemical composition of the soil. After a few false starts, his project was approved and he was offered a position with Martin Marietta, which was building the lander.

The first Viking explorer landed on Mars in 1976. Like the Pathfinder, it sent back photographs that captured the public's imagination. The attention was short-lived, however, as the country was more interested in sinking money into social programs than it was in space exploration.  

Viking's attempts to find life were inconclusive. Clark's experiment produced more solid, if surprising, results, including the discovery of a high concentration of sulphur in the soil, "which has since been verified by Pathfinder," he notes.

Clark believes the high level of sulphur is due to volcanic activity that spewed clouds of sulphuric and hydrochloric acid over the land. The acids reacted with the rocks, turning them red and leaving a residue of sulphur.

The discovery of the sulphur concentration was significant for several reasons. Rain would have washed away the sulphur, which is highly soluble, so its presence was a clue to the last time water may have flowed across the Martian surface. Another implication was that the soil is very acidic, which will make it difficult for settlers to grow plants without first treating the soil.

In the years following the first Viking mission, as the data was digested and debated, the space program "hunkered down," Clark says, "essentially to the size it is now, which is a tiny fraction of the national budget."

At the same time, NASA came up with a new mantra: faster, better, cheaper. Missions had to be accomplished at a fraction of the cost of former projects, which meant smaller, lighter payloads. (The primary limiting factor on space missions is the enormous cost per pound.)

The companies that survived, like Lockheed Martin, were the ones that figured out how to operate leaner. For example, the Magellan spacecraft, which flew to Venus, was built using spare parts from other craft such as Voyager and Viking. It was nicknamed "Secondhand Rose."

"Now we're back in business," says Clark. Still, he admits, if he'd been asked five years ago if the ups and downs of space research were worth the trouble, "I don't know how I would have answered."

Although the space industry is fiercely competitive, it is also supportive; there's a shared desire to see any projects be successful. The public may not react well to disasters, but public response to a successful mission helps keep the space program alive. And although most missions are controlled in cooperation with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, as often as not these days, any one mission is the product of the combined efforts of several firms.

Lockheed Martin's role with Pathfinder was relatively small; the company built the heat shield the lander used to enter the atmosphere. And yet Clark's reaction to Pathfinder's success was "glee and amazement," he says. "It was a tricky landing, and they pulled it off perfectly."

Pathfinder met with unexpected public enthusiasm, and Clark points to several reasons for that. First, it has been twenty years and an entire generation since Viking's photos were first seen on Earth. And although the space shuttle gathers valuable information, it does nothing to satiate the American hunger for pushing boundaries and exploration.

"Every interplanetary mission is breaking new ground," Clark says. "We don't know what we'll find."

Or how they'll find it. Unlike Zubrin, Clark believes exploration of Mars will require a second stage, during which a large spacecraft will be assembled in Earth's orbit, probably in conjunction with the building of an international space station. A first realistic step, he says, would be the so-called Mars Sample Return project, which would send a probe to collect samples of soil and rocks off Mars, make its own fuel and then return to Earth.

Still, both Zubrin and Clark agree that man must eventually go to Mars. "A human explorer could have accomplished in a couple of hours everything the rover has done so far," Clark says. "And only a human can determine what is interesting beyond what is expected."

Mars, he says, is the Rosetta stone for understanding planets and the solar system. When he looks at the stars, he sees "vast possibilities." Vast possibilities and a certain amount of risk, no matter how careful engineers are to eliminate dangers for future space explorers.

But life on a new frontier is always risky. "I'd certainly be disappointed if, as a people, we have become so risk-averse that we're willing to forego the challenge," Clark says. "There would be no shortage of people who would rise to meet that challenge, even with the risks."

And is he one of them? Would he be willing to go to Mars? "Yes," Clark says, without the slightest hesitation. "But they won't ask."

When the full history of space exploration is written, Clark says, he'd like to be remembered as "a true believer, someone who was there during the high times and the times when nothing seemed to be going right, but stuck with it.  

"Some people," he says, looking at a small globe of Mars over which a model of the MGS hovers, "are bitten by the Mars bug. It's an incurable disease that will not be satisfied until we have explored every bit of the planet."

After that, the next generation of explorers will face an even bigger challenge: leaving the solar system. "And it's a long way to the next gas station."

The July 4 Pathfinder landing on Mars was "the biggest Internet event in history," according to one NASA official. The first week, the agency reported 200 million hits on its Pathfinder Web page; 500 million more hits have been tallied since then. Pointing to those numbers, the space industry says the country is once again ready to take up President Kennedy's challenge.

Eileen Dukes was born in 1960, "a child of the space age," she says. While other girls played with dolls, she devoured science-fiction novels, although her favorite book remains Dr. Seuss's You Will Go to the Moon, published in 1967.

She sat mesmerized before the television for any show having anything to do with space exploration--be it a live Gemini shot or a Star Trek episode. When she was nine her parents let her stay up late to watch Armstrong take his famous step.

Ever since, Dukes has wanted to be an astronaut. Her father, an engineer, encouraged her, as did her mother, "though she really wanted me to be a doctor." After high school, Dukes considered attending the Air Force Academy. But in those days, the Air Force wouldn't let women fly fighters, and you had to fly fighters to be an astronaut pilot.

Instead, she opted for an engineering degree from MIT; if she couldn't be the pilot, then she'd still be a member of the crew as a mission specialist. But after Challenger exploded, NASA decided not to take any more "civilians" into space: that ended those dreams.

"So now I fly vicariously," Dukes says. "It's the next best thing."
And it's also how she ended up at Martin, where she's now in charge of mission control at Waterton Canyon for the Mars Global Surveyor. At the time of this interview, MGS was just a day away from plunging into the Martian atmosphere.

MGS wasn't Dukes's first interplanetary exploration. She was also a part of the project for Magellan, launched from the shuttle Discovery in 1989 for the 788-million-mile journey to Venus. Fourteen months later the craft began sending back radar images of the Venusian surface, which Martin officials bragged were more complete than the images that had been made of Earth.

The initial Magellan project was done on a shoestring. But despite its success, it was all Dukes and her cohorts could do to coax another $4 million--less than the price of a bomber--out of the government to extend the mission.

And such missions are crucial, she says. "Do we want to know if we are alone in the universe or do we want to stay on our little planet?" Dukes asks. "Man has always moved on when some place got too crowded. We always have wanted to know what's over the next hill."

Although Dukes didn't work on Pathfinder, she was "ecstatic" at its success. "The interplanetary industry is a small community," she says. "We all know each other. We want each other to succeed because really, we're after the same thing: the pursuit of science."

Still, there's a hint of frustration over the fact that Dukes's own pet project, the Mars Global Surveyor, doesn't attract the same attention as Pathfinder. "Actually, MGS is more exciting from a scientific perspective," she says, then shrugs. "But there's no cute little rovers."

The MGS program calls for a series of orbiters and landers launched every 26 months as Mars moves into alignment with Earth. The craft Dukes will be "flying" is polar-orbiting, designed to survey the planet's topography, magnetism, mineral composition and atmosphere.

The timetable for human exploration of Mars depends more on financing and public sentiment than on current capabilities. For example, the public will have to get over its aversion to risk. "I think we're too cautious and that the public is too hard on NASA," Dukes says. "Exploration has always been a dangerous business, but so is crossing the street."

The girl who wanted to be an astronaut still reads her Dr. Seuss book to her two daughters, ages one and five. The oldest can look at the night sky and point out Venus, Jupiter and Mars. "She knows that Mommy had a spaceship go to Venus," Dukes says. "And she knows that Mommy has a spaceship going to Mars."  

Surely the generation that includes her children will be the one to make the more than 300-million-mile trip to Mars. And if one of her daughters signs on for the voyage? "I'd be thrilled," Dukes says. "Worried, but thrilled."

Although the government first approved commercial space ventures in 1984, the first such launch wasn't until 1987. Last year there were 26 commercial launches, the first time the private sector has outdone the public.

Government's role in space will likely continue to decrease in coming years. But then, since the early days, it has been the merchants who've undertaken the dangerous business of exploration, looking for new routes and trading partners.

Today, nowhere are there more commercial space ventures in the works than in Colorado. There are the big boys like Lockheed Martin and Ball Aerospace. And the not so big, like Spacedev, a Steamboat Springs operation that hopes to send a mission to an asteroid to mine its minerals.

And then there's Robert Zurbin, whose eighteen-month-old company has already garnered more than $1 million in government contracts.

On this day, Zubrin isn't where he's supposed to be, which is his small office in a medium-sized building in Lakewood. "He's at the School of Mines in Golden," says Dennis Pelaccio. "Today's the big day."

The office where Pelaccio, a specialist in rocket propulsion, stands guard looks like a teenage boy's room. Papers, books and tools are scattered around. There's been little attempt at decoration, except for a haphazard wall arrangement of rocket posters, a blueprint diagram of a Saturn V rocket topped by an Apollo spacecraft, and a photograph of astronaut Bruce McCandless floating in space. There's also a poster of Einstein, with a slogan that epitomizes Zubrin's me-against-the-world mentality: "Great Spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."

Pelaccio, who says he's working on a "small" NASA contract to develop a new, smaller rocket engine, has been in the aerospace industry for twenty years--most of them spent with large companies. He'd known Zubrin for ten years before coming to work for him in January.

"He's a visionary," Pelaccio says of the boss. "There's no one else out there. He understands the whole picture of what it will take to move mankind forward."

While other scientists involved with interplanetary exploration "plug away from one project to the next, always little steps," he explains, "Bob dreams of moving in giant steps."

Those steps today have taken Zubrin to the cramped chemistry lab he rents from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Despite his reputation for irascibility, he goes about his work with the joy of a five-year-old making mud pies. The Mars bug has obviously bitten Zubrin and his assistants hard.

"We're going to be the first Martians," Brian Frankie announces. And he's serious. Frankie was working for a petrochemical company when he read Zubrin's book, The Case for Mars, and wrote asking for a job. He got one. "I fully expect to see human explorers on Mars in my lifetime," Frankie says, before adding wistfully, "even if I don't get to go."

Zubrin was born in Brooklyn in 1952. The first current event he remembers is the launching of Sputnik, which was followed a week later by another launching, this time a spacecraft occupied by Laika, the space dog. "I read all about Laika in my Weekly Reader," he says. "Unfortunately, the dog died because they didn't have a recovery system." Zubrin wrinkles his nose for poor Laika.

The Soviet launch threw American adults "into a cluster panic," says Zubrin. "But I was already reading science fiction by then, and to me, it was confirmation that all this stuff was going to be real. The whole country went space crazy, and I was right there with them. My dad bought me a telescope when I was seven, and I used it to make all these drawings of the moon."

If there was any question for young Zubrin, it was whether to look up to the stars or down to the ocean. This was also the era of Jacques Cousteau, who was talking about establishing colonies on the bottom of the ocean. But in the end, it was space that won Zubrin's heart, especially after he read Have Spacesuit Will Travel. The book follows a boy hero who finds a patched-up space suit, which comes in mighty handy when he is abducted by aliens. This hero, however, is no muscle-bound nitwit, but a guy who relies on his slide rule, wit and knowledge of science to get him out of trouble.  

Zubrin, who says he'd head to Mars himself "in a flash," modeled himself after his hero, "part Boy Scout, part Dennis the Menace. I knew all about the planets--the pressure of their atmosphere, temperatures, what it would take to survive there. I knew that you can't go faster than the speed of light, but you can come pretty damn close."

And Mars was at the top of his list of places to go. For starters, it's the closest planet to Earth in both distance and resemblance. A fan of Burroughs, Zubrin also found it very romantic, and he dreamed of thundering herds of six-legged thoats racing across the red Martian plain. "Remember, it wasn't until 1965 that the 'canals' were disproved," he says. "I mean, by eleven, I knew that flying battleships were a bit on the fanciful side. But the rest was wide open."

He was obsessed with space. But sometime during his teens, Zubrin got the message that real people, especially sons of chewing-gum company executives, didn't become astronauts. The real space explorers were kind of like movie stars. "It was another reality," he says.

So Zubrin turned his talent for math in a new direction, toward competitive chess. He was in the Soviet Union, studying Russian so he could read their chess manuals, when Armstrong landed on the moon.

"I thought it was cool," he recalls. "People kept coming up to me saying, 'Are you American? Do you know the astronauts?' Of course, it wasn't until much later that I became good friends with Buzz Aldrin."

Zubrin is still bitter over Nixon gutting the Apollo program. "They shut down the Saturn assembly line and burned the blueprints," he says. He makes no attempt to hide his disdain for NASA's "delivery trucks," the space shuttles.

After college, Zubrin spent the next eight years teaching at junior-high and high-school levels. "I tried to impress on kids that scientists make contributions that will make them immortal 500 years down the road," he says. "They, of course, would say, 'Then how come you're not a scientist?'"

It was a good question, and one that weighed on his mind. In 1982, with his first marriage over, Zubrin went off to graduate school in nuclear engineering. Along the way, he also picked up a master's in astronautics.

It was during this time that Zubrin heard about a group of graduate students at the University of Colorado in Boulder who were calling themselves the Mars Underground. Fed up with NASA's myopic view of space exploration, they were trying to put Mars back on the map. Their theories, published under the name The Case for Mars, talked not just about how to get to Mars, but the ramifications of such travel, including what sort of civilization could be created.

By their third convention in 1987, the Mars Underground was beginning to catch the attention of those who mattered, including Carl Sagan and NASA. Zubrin, who presented a paper at the convention, found the group's work fascinating--so much so that in 1988 he left graduate school to work in the aerospace industry, so he could "do Mars."

Zubrin landed a job with Martin Marietta in the preliminary design group, that area of engineering that promotes creativity. There he worked on a number of projects, including a machine designed to reduce Martian air into fuel and the Nymph, which is supposed to hop around Mars by refueling itself at each stop. Zubrin's work on the Nymph earned him his Ph.D.

In 1989 President George Bush called on NASA to come up with a plan for exploring Mars. Ninety days later NASA issued what Zubrin calls a "ridiculous" report, estimating that it would cost $400 billion dollars and take thirty years. "Of course, it took an immediate nosedive," Zubrin says of the government's interest in Mars.

His own response was Mars Direct. The plan calls for sending an unmanned craft to Mars, which upon landing sets up shop and begins to take in "the most obvious Martian resource, carbon dioxide" and, by combining it with a small amount of hydrogen brought by the craft, makes methane and oxygen for fuel, as well as water and oxygen for the four human explorers who follow in a second ship and remain for 500 days.

The plan is outlined in detail in Zubrin's book, The Case for Mars. Basically, it calls for a series of such refueling stations and Earthling habitats until eventually a colony can be established. Taking that plan a few hundred steps further, Zubrin foresees a day when humans can begin "terraforming" Mars until it is as conducive to human life as Earth is.

As Zubrin sees it, the technology and equipment, with certain refinements like the device he is working on at his lab, are available now. Under his timetable, the first ship would land on Mars in 2005, to be followed by humans in 2008. Altogether, he says, a ten-year program of launches would cost $25 billion, "about the amount we spend on a medium-sized military procurement in one year."  

Zubrin's plans netted a mixed response from his colleagues. "Great acceptance and great opposition," he says. Those opposed, he contends, either did not understand the technology, which he says is "gaslight era," or work in fields that would not be needed for Mars Direct, and therefore left behind. The ensuing controversy caused him to leave Lockheed Martin in January 1996 to form his own company.

NASA thought enough of the plan that it commissioned its own Mars Direct study, Zubrin notes. And though that study doubled the size and cost of what he believes is necessary, it was considerably below NASA's own 1989 estimate that $400 billion was needed. In fact, the agency awarded Zubrin a contract to develop the machine that could make it all possible--if not for Mars Direct, then for something closer to the Lockheed Martin version that will still need a means of using the Martian atmosphere to make fuel, water and oxygen.

Pathfinder, Zubrin says, was "lucky" to have landed safely on its airbags. Still, he thought its success was "really cool," if for no other reason than it gave the American public a glimpse of the next frontier.

"It's my belief that the true religion of the American people is the frontier," he says. "It's what we're about, it's in our blood. Unconsciously or consciously, I think we know that if we're not pushing the frontier, then we're less than we ought to be."

The people who want all exploration accomplished by robots are the same sort of people who told Columbus he would fall off the edge of the world. "We wouldn't be here if we weren't willing to take risks," Zubrin says. But there are also valid scientific reasons why man must go.

Pointing out the window to the foothills beyond Golden, Zubrin says, "Those hills have the richest collection of dinosaur fossils in the world. But you could drop a hundred Sojourners on them and you wouldn't find a single fossil for a hundred years. You need humans who can not only pick up the rock, but split it open and then recognize what they are seeing...especially if it's not a form of life we know. And life on Mars, if it exists, may be hundreds of feet underground, and that means drilling a hole.

"But beyond the fact that humans can do science better and quicker than robots, there's another benefit. I think the immediate one is that millions of kids would be inspired to pursue scientific educations. It's an invitation to adventure in a new world. The more people involved in science, the more man progresses--whether on Mars or here on Earth."

Zubrin, like his graph, is beginning to spike with enthusiasm. "The adaptations it would take to survive on Mars would make it a hothouse for scientific invention," he says. "Just as the labor shortage on the American frontier forced inventions that would change the world, so would necessity force the same thing on Mars."

Another benefit, one close to his heart and ego, would be the formation of a Martian nation. Settlers came to America intent on bringing the best of the Old World and leaving the worst behind, he says, "and despite the mistakes that were made, they succeeded in many ways. Those who settle Mars would have the same opportunity."

Man's stepping off Mother Earth will have ramifications that reach far beyond just money and technology. For example, Zubrin says, imagine what finding life on another planet would do to people who take the Bible literally?

When those Martian chroniclers look back, it won't matter if Bill Clinton was involved in the Whitewater scandal or if Newt Gingrich took money illegally. "They'll see what we did to give birth to their civilization," Zubrin says, "a civilization with its own customs, songs, poetry, even language...and that will be our legacy.

"I mean, think about it. Ferdinand and Isabella thought they were the most important people in the world when a bedraggled Italian with this crazy idea came begging for a few ships. But who is remembered now? Can you tell me who the queen after Isabella was? I can't, because she wasn't significant."

What about the argument that Earth's problems should be fixed before we head off for Mars? "I know how to get people to Mars. I don't know how to fix all of our troubles here," he responds. "But science has been the reason for the advancement of the human condition, and science is at its best on the frontier.  

"Why do you have children?" he asks, pacing. "They're an economic drain; they cramp your lifestyle. I'll tell you why. You have children not for your own gain, but for the future. Why should we open Mars to humanity? To allow a new, and hopefully better, branch of humanity to come into existence. We do this for them, we do this for the future.


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