In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy made history when he kicked America's space program into overdrive, resulting in history's first manned mission to the moon. And President Obama wants to do something similar: launch a major expedition to an unexplored body in the solar system, jump-start a frenzy of economic and scientific activity to help get us there, and claim lots of credit for creating jobs as well as promoting science and technology.
On Tuesday, Obama published an op-ed at CNN laying out his vision (once again) for visiting Mars.
“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” he wrote.
The Obama administration has been pursuing a visit to Mars for years. But Obama may be overlooking an easier target, if the arguments of one NASA researcher (and numerous supporters) are to be believed. While Mars may seem to be an attractive destination, we should consider sending people to Venus instead, these people argue.
Obama's essay conjures images of NASA habitats on the Red Planet like we saw in the film “The Martian.” But that future is a long way off: As the actual author of “The Martian” has said, it's far more likely that NASA's first manned Mars mission will involve humans orbiting a few times and coming back. Even Elon Musk says he'll be creating a “cargo route” to Mars long before he sends actual people to land there.
You see, Mars is a challenging destination. It's far away, the gravity is a fraction of Earth's — posing additional health hazards beyond the lack of atmospheric radiation shielding — and you have to be suited up just to breathe outside.
By contrast, Venus is a lot closer to Earth than Mars is. At their closest points, Venus is only 25 million miles away, compared with Mars's 34 million miles. The shorter distance means you'd need less time and fuel to get there, reducing the cost. And although Venus's surface temperature is hot enough to melt metal, and the crushing pressure will squish you like a bug, the upper atmosphere is actually rather habitable.
“At about 50 kilometers above the surface the atmosphere of Venus is the most earthlike environment (other than Earth itself) in the solar system,” wrote Geoffrey Landis, a NASA scientist, in a 2003 paper. Landis has spent much of his career dreaming up ways to make a human trip to Mars actually feasible, so he knows what he's talking about.
At high altitude, Venusian temperatures are hot but not unbearable, and the barometric pressure drops to the equivalent of one Earth atmosphere. You'd have droplets of sulfuric acid to worry about, but only if your skin is directly exposed.
It helps that NASA has already taken steps to research a manned mission to Venus. The project, known as HAVOC, looks like this:
Proponents of colonizing Venus say the logical endpoint would be floating cities in the clouds — just like in “Star Wars.” These colonies could be filled with breathable oxygen (which we may be able to create right from Venus's own atmosphere) and made of durable materials that can withstand the acid. Even if the colony's walls were breached, you wouldn't have an explosive decompression like you would on Mars, because the pressure in Venus's atmosphere would prevent a rapid leak of air.
So if sending humans to Venus makes so much sense, why aren't we paying more attention to it? Perhaps that's because, according to PBS, humans are obsessed with landing on things as a way to claim them. Planting a flag is a lot more dramatic than throwing one out an airlock.
And who knows? Perhaps what we learn from sending manned missions to Venus could make colonizing Mars not just a little bit easier, but a lot.
“If you did Venus first, you could get a leg up on advancing those technologies and those capabilities ahead of doing a human-scale Mars mission,” Dale Arney, a member of the NASA team behind the HAVOC project, told IEEE Spectrum in 2014. “It's a chance to do a practice run, if you will, of going to Mars.”