Earth is 3rd planet from the sun, Mars is the next one




November 23, 2016

HUMAN JOURNEY TO MARS: Excerpt from my public lecture, “Obstacles to A Space Odyssey”

Is anyone watching the new National Geographic Channel’s TV series, “Mars”? It’s exhilarating stuff: 1960s Apollo fever all over again as we contemplate going to Mars. But is it “castles in the air”?

Since Russia’s Sputnik ignited the space race in 1957, making President Kennedy aim our rocketry at the Moon, we’ve been dreaming of sallying forth into deep space — the realm of Cosmonauts and Astronauts. But we’ve never got beyond the Moon, which is still a “suburb” of our Earth.

We must distinguish between near space and deep space. Don’t be misled by the dreamy terms Astronaut (USA) and Cosmonaut (Russia): Such people do not exist yet. As I pointed out in a blog a year ago, the pretentious terms “astronaut” and “cosmonaut” are pompous political malapropisms, merely expressing our hopes and desires. Humans are yet to go past the Moon to navigate the astros or the cosmos. (“Aster” is Latin/Greek for star, while “Cosmos” is the universe. We’ve never been out there!)

In 1998 John Glenn returned to near space in a space shuttle, in the company of other astronauts; he was 77. For him this was really a celebrity ride to honor him as the second man in near-space (after Russia’s Yuri Gagarin in 1961). Glenn was the man who, tired of roaring down his Cambridge, Ohio hometown roadways on his motorcycle, joined the USAF and in 1962 became the first American in near-Earth orbit.

Reporters who covered Glenn’s return to earth in 1998 added a human touch by showing a woman of 81 who watched the spectacle in awe and gushed: “I wanna go, too!” That brings up the question I used to ask my audience: WOULD YOU GO? If volunteers were invited for a one-way trip out of Earth (you’d get a front-row view of the glories of the universe, but you had no chance of returning: none, zero, zip, zilch, nada!), would you go?

During my years as a scientist at NASA, I used to amuse myself and entertain audience at schools, universities, and museums in Greater Cleveland area with public lectures on “Obstacles to A Space Odyssey.” I would extol the amazing achievements of NASA through the hectic days of Gemini and Apollo, etc… But then I would sketch out the myriad problems needing to be solved before man can venture out to real/deep space (in our solar system or beyond) to the real domain of putative astronauts and cosmonauts.

The biggest challenge is lofting the payload through the vastness of space. Consider distances: Mars (our nearest planetary neighbor) is 400 times farther than the Moon. If Neil Armstrong’s hop to the Moon be likened to sprinting 25 miles on a bicycle from a US city’s downtown to its nearest suburb, then a trip to Mars would be like flying 10,000 miles non-stop in a glider from Canada to Australia.

Then there’s the matter of payload. If the Saturn-V rocket which launched Apollo 11 from Florida on July 16, 1969 is seen as a full pencil, then Eagle (the Lunar Lander that shuttled Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin softly from lunar orbit to the lunar surface) is the sharpened tiny tip of that pencil; the very long shat of the pencil was just propellant fuel. Eagle was the size of a camper’s tent; it weighed 5 tons. In contrast, the smallest module that can carry a human crew and keep them supplied through the 7-month flight to Mars would be the size of a colonial house, weighing over 20 tons. We have no rocket in service or even in conception yet that can lift such a behemoth of a payload from Earth.

Even so, that is only HALF the requirement: the spacecraft will need to be launched from Mars for its return. So, extra fuel will have to be procured at Mars or carried there with the original payload. Since Mars gravity is much bigger than the Moon’s, the entire “pencil shaft” of propellant may have to be doubled to carry extra fuel to Mars (if it is liquid or solid hydrocarbon) for use to launch a return trip. Look again at the sharpened full pencil; now, double its length! If the same launch pad design for the lunar launch is to be used again for the Mars trip, the gantry would dwarf the Statue of Liberty — giving a new meaning to the biblical Tower of Babel!

Such doubling of the rocket power would complicate and jeopardize things immensely. Of course there are alternatives to liquid and solid propellants but their performance and reliability issues are far beyond our scope here. The most likely scenario is to time the return trip for when Mars-Jupiter-Earth are aligned (not in the astrologers’ sense!) so that a small thrust off Mars can be boosted by Jupiter’s behemoth gravitation to sling-shoot the return craft towards Earth. That not only brings more perils but, if it works, may add years (of waiting for alignment) to the trip.

That brings up the topic in which I was involved at NASA: the durability of rocket engines in the incredibly aggressive environment of a rocket flame, exceeding 5,000°F (3,000°C). With the single-shot rockets used for Moon launches it is not a serious concern, but when we must use and reuse the rocket (a trail now being pioneered by the intrepid company SpaceX) it becomes a limiting issue. No metal can stay solid/intact at those temperatures, and ceramics are notoriously too brittle. Between its glorious maiden flight in 1981 and its catastrophic death in 2003 (for both of which events I was lucky to be in Cape Canaveral to watch), Space Shuttle Columbia, flew 28 missions in 22 years. That is remarkable longevity (albeit in intermittent service and with constant repairs, of course) under the severest service conditions known to engineering.

The solution that protected space shuttle and advanced jet engines under those conditions was to line the combustors of the rocket engines with a veneer of material (essentially ceramics) that continuously regenerated during service. (The task of our team was to determine how the desirable regeneration occurs, and how that benefit might be maximized.) That process is yet to be developed for deep space vehicles. (That’s a dream job for my next incarnation — on Mars!)

Other challenges include:

  • Unfathomable distance & time from earth (communication is limited by speed of light);
  • Propulsion Speed (round-trip journey to our next-door planet, Mars, would last years);
  • Carrying/finding enough fuel, food, drinking water, or breathable air for such a journey;
  • Mechanical challenges: equipment that run forever with zero or minimal maintenance;
  • Crew Welfare (illness, radiation, confinement & zero-gravity effects on body & mind);
  • Compatibility of Crew who would live & procreate en route in crushed confinement;
  • Etc.

(For a casual reading, see the November 2016 National Geographic Magazine topic of trip to Mars.)

But human ingenuity gives us hope. Upon escaping from 1,500 years of Dark-Age ignorance imposed by Christian dogma, man jumped from primitive proto-flight (at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903) to Mare Tranquilitatis (on the Moon) in 1969. In just a blink (66 years, or two human generations) we went from earth-bound existence to the threshold of eternity!!!

So, can we reach for Mars? Yes, we can, eventually:  I believe in human ingenuity!

I always ended my lectures on conflicting notes: Realistically, we are far from true space travel; but as to the philosophical question, would I go? the answer is “abso-frigging-lutely, YES!!!”

A song to sing on that ultimate journey:

♫ Fly me to the Moon and let me play among the stars/

♪ Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars….






A dear old friend of mine sent me this poster to distract me from the sere inanity of the Trump-v-Clinton election brouhaha. It is a throw-back, two full decades, to my first public lecture in Cleveland, OH.












Monday, July 6, 2015     7:00 PM
Stow Monroe Falls Library, 3512 Darrow Road, Stow, OH

Don't Be Intimidated!

“Quantum Potes Tantum Aude!” (“Whenever you can, dare!”)

Another installment of my lecture series, “Obstacles to a Space Odyssey,” was given at the Stow Public Library to members of the Stow-Akron chapter of CFI, the Center for Inquiry. The one-hour lecture explored the state of the art in our eternal quest to know something of the unfathomably vast and mysterious physical universe  in which we live, and especially to consider the feasibility of extended human travel in space.



To learn about the Northeast Ohio CFI, visit http://www.centerforinquiry.net/neohio

Date Time Activity Location (for upcoming CFI events)
July 6 7:00 PM Obstacles to a Space Odyssey Stow Monroe Falls Library
July 8 7:00 PM Book Look Garfield Heights Library
July 9 7:00 PM Long Winded Answers – Cleveland Gypsy Beans, Cleveland
July 14 6:30 PM Long Winded Answers – Akron/Canton Panera Bread, Fairlawn
July 18 6:00 PM Vino Fino Wolf Creek Winery, Norton

This meeting explores the pursuit of manned missions beyond the moon. Retired NASA engineer and long-time CFI member Linus U. J. Thomas-Ogbuji will provide an answer to these questions and others when he presents “Obstacles to A Space Odyssey.”

Linus’ presentation will sketch out some of the obstacles we’ll have to overcome before we can embark on the incredibly long and hazardous journey farther out in our solar system and beyond. The problems run the gamut from logistical challenges of the means of propulsion, to health and safety issues such as exposure to radiation and aging in space, to welfare concerns such as the possibility of hostile alien encounters!

As always, there will be time for questions and answers after his presentation.




OBSTACLES TO A SPACE ODYSSEY: Second Installment, on 05/13/15

My lecture to the Cleveland, OH, chapter of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) highlighted some challenges humans must overcome before we can embark on a space journey beyond near-earth orbit and its immediate environment (the moon).

The most prominent challenges devolve around logistics: propulsion systems (especially fuels). Next are physiological & psychological challenges galore over prolonged exposure of humans in space, with its vastness, loneliness, radiation, bio-degeneration; finally, there are encounter hazards as well as social dynamics of people in prolonged isolation.