"Can We Go to Mars Without Going Crazy?" [May] was a source of amusement to me. As a former submarine sailor in the U.S. Navy, I have spent more than two months underwater and known sailors who have gone much longer than that. Maybe NASA is looking for "the right stuff" in the wrong place. Submarine sailors routinely spend long periods of isolation at sea with no windows.
Let me start this commentary on the dangers of sending astronauts to Mars with one word: Duh!
The only analogues you can think of are Antarctic expeditions? What about the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine fleet? What about 500 years of whaling, fishing, and exploration of the planet? People find ways to work together when they have to, and the people with "the right stuff" are usually the best at staying focused on the mission. The Captain Ahab and Caine Mutiny
scenarios are notable primarily because they are the exception, not the rule.
Spirit Lake, Iowa
William Speed Weed responds: There is submarine research, but most of it is still classified. Moreover, Norm Thagard, the first American aboard Mir, points to three months (the maximum time aboard a submarine) as a real transition. Less than three months and you're on a mission military protocols work, and you just grin and bear it. Longer than three months, and it's not just a mission, it's your life: A whole new dynamic takes over in which psychological problems cannot be dealt with the way they are under military protocols. NASA does study expeditions that were psychologically successful, such as Sir Ernest Shackleton's journey to the Antarctic. But there's a larger, more important point: It's not that we can't look at the past and learn from it; what we can't do is predict how a certain group will behave in the future.
After 29 years in the U.S. Navy with eight and a half years aboard ship, I think the simplest solution to the Mars problem is to send two eight-person ships instead of one, each with a crew of four. The ships could be launched simultaneously, traveling to Mars and landing within a short distance of each other. Switching crew members periodically would alleviate the stress of dealing with the same people all the time. If a meteor struck one ship, or if one ship were damaged on landing, some or all of the crew could escape to the companion vessel. Two half-empty ships would allow for carrying more exploration equipment. And the fixed costs for such things as engineering design and administrative salaries would be the same for two ships as for one.
Roger A. Moncrief
Jacksonville, Florida Click here for more Mars letters.
On page 54 of your April issue, you reproduced an advertisement from our distant past showing two tastefully attired models in fertilizer bags. Although the photo is quaintly embarrassing and not quite up to current beer-commercial standards, the caption deserves comment. The photo was taken [in 1958] after the inauguration of Chevron Chemical's Ortho Division fertilizer plant in Richmond, California. Chevron never operated facilities in Minnesota.
Chevron Environmental Management Co.
In April's Future Tech we should have noted Hugh Herr's colleague Robert Dennis, who is working with him at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Lab to develop a robotic fish powered by artificial muscles.
In "Secrets of the Alpaca Mummies" (April), our photo caption on page 64 states that one micrometer equals one hundred-thousandth of an inch. One micrometer is equal to 3.937 hundred-thousandths of an inch. Click here for letters on R&D;, Future Tech, or Physics of Baseballs.