Life on Mars moves closer as space odyssey enters alien territory

Seventy years ago, Orson Welles panicked the US by announcing an alien invasion, but with a space probe currently orbiting Mars, could humans soon be heading for the Red Planet? Martin Hickes reports.

With temperatures averaging an icy -81F, with little or no oxygen to speak of and a distinct lack of facilities the 21st-century traveller has become accustomed to, for most Mars is not exactly an enticing destination.

But such trivial matters are of little concern to those who have dedicated to their lives to the pursuit of space exploration and while historically forays to the Red Planet have been steeped in failure and not a little embarrassment – remember Beagle 2, which cost 40m and failed to transmit even the faintest of signals back to Earth? – experts are confident that in the next 15 or so years, we could finally have a man on Mars.

Now Dr Robert Zubrin, NASA space engineer and president of The Mars Society, and Bo Maxwell, his counterpart in the UK, hope the directive given by the American government two years ago to focus on "a human presence throughout the solar system" will be enough to propel humans to the Red Planet.

"In the early 1960s, President Kennedy set NASA the task of landing a man on the moon before the end of that famous decade," says Maxwell. "While this latest directive is not as explicit, it opens the door for the exploration of Mars."

If given the go-ahead, the $30bn Mars Direct plan, which both Maxwell and Zubrin have been vociferously campaigning for, the first man on Mars could be seen by 2018 with human colonies and habitable bases on the planet as early as 2025-30, which in terms of space travel is just around the corner.

The fear of both US and UK scientists is that the new administration – of whatever political colour – will concentrate solely on a new Moon landing, or even worse, enter what they describe as the "stagnation" of developing a second generation shuttle programme.

"Traditionally, the UK will not sponsor any human spaceflight work," says Maxwell, UK managing director of the Mars Society. "Because successive governments equate human spaceflight with massive expense.

"Unsurprisingly, we do not support this view. It is our contention that Britain – with its long track record of technical innovation – should be involved in the European Space Agency's manned spaceflight efforts which, like the American 'vision' is looking towards missions to the Moon and – more particularly – Mars.

"Even without funding a 'British' astronaut, the UK can be actively engaged in such a programme in the areas of propulsion, avionics and flight systems, communications, ground control, medical research, etc – all of which will reap tremendous benefits for the UK space industry and UK academia.

"Obviously, when humans do go to Mars, we'd like to see a British national on at least one of the missions, but we're prepared to work quietly on that aspect, and concentrate for now on the very real opportunities the UK has to contribute to – and benefit from – human spaceflight.

"We're also working on an exciting project to deploy a 'prototype' of the uprated 'Mars Hab' to Iceland in 2007, where teams of six researchers at a time can live and work as if they were on Mars.

"We are also involved in a wide range of other work – public outreach and education so school children can learn about science, technology and planetary exploration by actually interacting and driving (via remote control) a half-scale

model of Europe's 'ExoMars' rover that will be going to Mars

in 2011. This project will hopefully be running by June of this year, and part of it may, in fact, be located in the 'display Mars Hab'."

The UK Government is to invest 73.2m to give Britain a major share in building the ExoMars robotic probe.

The rover will explore the surface of the Red Planet, in search of traces of life, past and present. The mission is a key milestone in the Aurora programme, the ESA's vision to send spacecraft and eventually astronauts to the Moon and Mars.

However, the lack of any green light currently – and the deferral of any decision on Mars/Moon project by the US until at least 2009 – means we may still have sometime to wait before the dreams of HG Wells, and Orson Welles, become a reality.

"Mars is a New World, filled with history waiting to be made by a new and youthful branch of human civilisation that is waiting to be born," adds Zubrin. "We must go to Mars to make that potential a reality. We must go, not for us, but for a people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians."