Monday, August 13, 2012

August 13th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

‘Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus’ was a popular book by John Gray, selling over seven million copies worldwide. The book postulated that Mars (the planet of War) and Venus (the planet of Love) were so far apart in distance, nature and repute, as are men and women in their approach to life. A good read, and one that provokes thought, even if nobody agrees entirely with sweeping statements and other people’s ideas.

Last week NASA landed a robotic vehicle on the surface of Mars. About the size and weight of a family car. The ‘Curiosity’ Rover is already sending back images of Mars – and it looks more like a dusty desert with rocks laying around on it.

Some columnists have already postulated that Men did not come from Mars, since ‘Curiosity’ has not found any evidence of sports magazines, girlie magazines or old beer cans. Personally, I can accept that men probably did come from Mars – since they tend towards war as a solution for a problem, and I am certain that women actually did come Venus, when one witnesses that they consider love as the weapon of choice in all matters!

All the same, this recent landing on Mars follows on from a discussion I had with a NASA employee a couple of weeks ago, when I was privileged to actually touch a rock from the moon. It was a public display, poorly attended, and hence one at which the NASA employee was happy to discuss concepts that he may otherwise have been too occupied to respond to.

NASA has recently ‘put aside’ its manned flight programme, and contracts ‘manned travel’ on Russian space ships to reach the international space station. However, NASA’s unmanned exploration of space has ‘rocketed’ in its place.

The man from NASA competently spoke about the potential, and lack thereof, on Mars. He explained that, ‘the trip to Mars takes several months, even in the most advanced space ship we have today, and the same to get back. Add a few months of research, and you are looking at a minimum one year in space. Imagine the oxygen needs, food, human waste management, water and other requirements for such a journey. It clearly makes sense to let the ‘robots’ do the trips at this stage. At least until we can establish a colony on Mars.’

Ummm the ‘Colony on Mars’ idea… that woke me up from my ‘I just touched a moon-rock daze’. As we chatted, he made it clear that the scientists are working on releasing the water on mars and the ability to manufacture fuels suitable for powering rocket ships from the materials on the red planet. I must have looked at him sideways for a second or two too long. ‘Do you remember the TV Series Space 1999?’ he asked, and in a moment the concepts were dredged from my childhood memories of a TV programme that had me skidding across the lounge floor in my socks, pretending to be in space. The British sci-fi depicted mankind living on the moon, in ‘biospheres’. It also worked on the concept that all the nuclear waste from earth was sent to the dark side of the moon for storage. In the opening episode of the series, the nuclear waste exploded and pushed the Moon, along with all 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, out of orbit and onto a whirlwind tour of galaxies and more. I am certain that the concept of storing nuclear waste on Mars is not being considered – and I hope that no crazy person is considering it either!
Of course, the reference to ‘Space 1999’ was more related to the living conditions of the 311 inhabitants of the surface of the moon. There were air-locks, solar power, rovers and workshops. Of course, there were also a lot of computers – but nothing as complex as today’s tablets and smart-phones. In fact, when we consider where we have reached in the realms of mobile computing, we are, as tech-humanity, putting the Science-Fiction writers to shame with Science-Reality out pacing their wildest dreams!

Chatting with Mr NASA, it appears that the next logical step is to explore Mars thoroughly, requires that we send up some small living compartments, a fuel laboratory, perhaps a factory unit or two, and then to send some people to LIVE there. Not just to visit, but to live. It would be a very long-term assignment – rather like ‘ex-pats’ who migrate to Africa, or the growing ‘African-ex-pats’ in Europe and the USA, perhaps we will soon have ‘ex-Earths’ migrating to another planet. It is not only possible, but it appears to be looming on the horizon of reality in the coming twenty years.

Just imagine living on another planet – starting the first colony there. To me it would be like starting a village. I can think of no persons better suited to creating such a living environment than the rural people of Ghana. They are used to the small community, limited freedoms, lack of water, lack of facilities, lack of sanitation, lack of access to major centres, making do with what you have over what you want, and the need to work hard every day to simply survive. I find it hard to believe that the average European or American would cope with it well, at all! Perhaps there is a need for NASA to start selecting some of the brightest people from rural Ghana, and to train them up, all the time keeping them in a small community, educating them to the highest levels, ready for starting the first off-planet community of human beings.

Sadly, I doubt that scenario will be the case. Instead it will probably be a combined group of Russian, American, Chinese and Europeans, all forced to speak English as a common language, all from large community backgrounds, habitual visitors of shopping malls and accustomed to easy access to whatever they need. Then, once they are in space and start getting homesick it will become necessary to employ a counsellor to listen to their worries. No doubt, at some point, a six month rescue mission will be needed to cater for a nervous breakdown – or perhaps two.

Living in isolation is for some people a punishment. So many people whom I know do not want to live in a small village. Yet, for me and others it is bliss and the concept of living in a community of more than a few hundred leaves us with mental scarring!

If we are to succeed in mastering space, the final frontier, then we need to consider carefully where we came from. We need to listen to the stories of our ancestors wandering across the West African plains, looking for a settlement area, just as NASA is doing on the planets that surround us. We need to realise that small is beautiful, and that making do with what we have is not a punishment, it is a challenge, and one that only the bravest and most resourceful can ever succeed at – and find deep satisfaction and personal realisation through.

NASA, please come and visit, we would be pleased to show you around!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail