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Space Privateers

Physicist Freeman Dyson says that our "scheme of Mars missions is excellent, but it has one fatal flaw: the fact that you are expecting NASA to do it." NASA has become timid, after the recent shuttle disaster, but private companies are willing take over the task.

Sir Martin Rees, the British Royal Astronomer, thinks rich CEOs like Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos will finance trips to the moon and Mars in the future, with NASA playing a supportive role. On space.com, Robert Roy Britt quotes him as saying, "I think the future of manned spaceflight will only brighten if it's done by people prepared to cut costs and take risks in a fashion that's seemingly unacceptable to the U.S. public in a NASA project."

Bezos is rumored to have put together a team of experts to build a $30 million reusable spacecraft. PayPal CEO Elon Musk started a new company called SpaceX, which will send its reusable Falcon rocket into space next year, carrying a Department of Defense satellite.

Rees says, "If humans venture back to the moon, and even beyond, they may carry commercial insignia rather than national flags. And perhaps the pioneer settlers in space communities will live (and even die) in front of a worldwide audience?the ultimate in commercial reality TV."

Dyson agrees. Of our return to the moon, he says, "Best of all would be to have a man-and-wife team and watch them raise the first lunar baby. If we go back with the pretense that it is for science, the public will probably switch to another channel."

Will space radiation be a problem for astronauts on a private mission? Robert Zubrin says a New York Times article by Mathew Wald grossly overestimated the danger. Wald wrote, "?the astronauts who went to the Moon on Apollo 14 accumulated about 1,140 millirem, equivalent of about three years on Earth in their nine-day mission. The astronauts on the Skylab 4, who spent 87 days in low Earth orbit, received a dose of about 17,800 millirem (equivalent to a 50-year background dose on Earth). That dose was near the threshold of radiation exposure that produces clinically measurable symptoms. Longer-term effects like increases in cancer rates have not been observed in adults exposed to doses at that level, but experts presume the effects exist.

"By comparison, nuclear power plant workers are limited by law to exposures no greater than 5,000 millirem a year; in this country they are generally held below 2,000. A round trip to Mars would be of a different order of magnitude. Brookhaven puts the exposure at 130,000 millirem over two and a half years. That is equivalent to almost 400 years of natural exposure."

Zubrin says The Times report is misleading, because astronauts have already spent much longer times exposed to space radiation in the International Space Station. Many ISS and Mir astronauts have spent 180 days in orbit, receiving an estimated 50 Rem of radiation during that period. Some have spent longer: NASA astronauts Mike Foale and Carl Walz each spent 230 days in orbit, which would have given them a dose of 64 Rem, half the 130 Rem astronauts will receive on a round trip Mars mission. Russian cosmonauts have been in orbit even longer. One cosmonaut spent 18 months on Mir, which corresponds to 150 Rem. No radiation induced health effects have been reported by any of them.

Scientists say the reason for this is that the effects of a dose of radiation are lessened when it?s delivered over a long period of time. In a 35-year-old man, a 130 Rem dose delivered over 6 months would equal about a 2% increased risk for getting cancer sometime in the future. This is about the same as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for 3 years.

How does ET do it?

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