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OPINION: Zero margin of error

Over the years some of the most dramatic events I can recall took place in outer space and on other planets.

Over the years some of the most dramatic events I can recall took place in outer space and on other planets.  I still remember where I was when the first humans landed on the moon and I watched grainy, black and white television pictures live from the lunar surface.

I also remember when the Apollo 13 spacecraft exploded on its way to the moon and then limped back to Earth with three very lucky Astronauts huddled inside. They were flying by the seat of their pants at the time but creative engineering and nerves of steel brought the crew safely home.

Years later millions witnessed the tragic loss of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia along with their entire flight crews. These tragedies were a shocking reminder of how risky space travel really is.  When things go wrong there is no safety net.

But one group of NASA scientists is perfectly comfortable flying without a net. In fact, this particular group of engineers flew a spacecraft 500 million kilometres and then successfully landed the Curiosity rover on Mars after a seven month space flight.  Margin of error – zero. 

The latest Mars rover, named Curiosity, is the size of a small SUV and weighs about a ton. NASA’s mission was to softly and gently place Curiosity at the bottom of the 100-mile wide Gale Crater near the base of Mount Sharp – on Mars.  Nothing could go wrong. 

Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph.  It had to be slowed and then stopped completely in seven minutes using a heat shield, a supersonic parachute, retro rockets and a sky crane. The landing had to be handled by a pre-programmed computer and everything had to work perfectly. 

There was no allowance for mistakes. It had never been done before.

To make it even more challenging NASA engineers could not communicate directly with the spacecraft.  Mars is far. It takes radio signals 15 minutes to get there. That’s why the descent to the planet’s surface was called Seven Minutes of Terror. 

In other words, once the flight crew learned that Curiosity had entered Mars’ atmosphere, the fate of the mission had already been sealed – alive or dead on the surface. 

Their $2.5 billion remote control rover could already have been an expensive pile of space junk in the red, Martian dust. 

Each unfolding moment could reveal disaster.

When it was confirmed the rover was safe and intact there was a brief moment of elation, a few well-deserved pats on the back and then, Curiosity moved on to search for life in Gale Crater and on the slopes of Mount Sharp. 

As impressive as this successful mission has been, wait until you see what comes next. 

Physicist Dr. Gerard Hooft (Nobel Prize 1999) is working with a private Dutch company called Mars One to establish a permanent colony on Mars beginning in 2023.

These guys are serious. A communications satellite and supply mission flies to Mars in 2016.  A robot rover will be sent in 2018 to begin scouting for a suitable settlement site with available water ice and usable minerals.

Life support units will be sent in 2020 to be remotely and robotically constructed. Four initial astronauts will arrive in 2023 with this number increasing to 20 or so by 2033.  This mission will be accomplished using existing technology. Private aerospace contractors are committed to build all the necessary components.

The website is already recruiting potential astronauts. However, before you book your extreme adventure there is one thing you should know.  To keep this mission affordable and to minimize the technical difficulties, only one-way tickets are available.

That’s right; if Mars One sends you to Mars you will be staying on Mars. 

There are no plans for return trips. Like they said, it will be a permanent colony with no ticket home. Even so, millions of interested space travelers are expected to apply.

Many come but few are chosen. Only four positions are available for the opportunity to emigrate to Mars.  If you drop off your resume early there might still be a chance for a window seat.  The entire adventure will be broadcast back as an ultimate reality show.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, the climate is getting more Mars-like every day. Canada tries to market and sell its dirty oil.  Here in Thunder Bay we are still trying to figure out how bike lanes work.

It kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?