A few days ago this blog had a post called Mars Peril, a science fiction story that dramatized the danger of cosmic rays in a manned mission to Mars. But there may be an even greater danger to a Mars mission: the danger that it simply won't be very viable entertainment.
Some purists will immediately ask: what difference does it make how entertaining a Mars mission is? But entertainment has always been a very large part of the purpose of manned space exploration, although not a very commonly acknowledged purpose. Realistically, one of the top three reasons we do space exploration is because of its entertainment value. Other top reasons include national prestige and satisfying the funding desires of an entrenched bureaucracy, so that its employees don't have to get other jobs. Science is basically a distant fourth in manned space exploration.
It seems that space travel had the highest entertainment “bang for the buck” in the early days of the Mercury program. When the first astronauts were sent into space, space travel was pretty much “the greatest show on Earth.” Part of the reason was that it didn't have much competition. There were no personal computers or internet, and the television shows of the early 1960's were something of a vast wasteland. So when the first men were launched into space in the earlier 1960's, it seemed every American was gripped by the spectacle. It was the perfect recipe for mass entertainment: extreme danger (no one knew whether the first manned rockets would blow up on the launching pad) ; short missions lasting less than a day (too short a time for watchers to get bored); and opportunities for photos that no one had ever seen before.
There was also great excitement during Apollo 11, the first mission in which astronauts walked on the moon. But then a strange thing happened. People began to get very bored with the Apollo missions. With the exception of Apollo 13 (which never landed on the moon, facing an explosion that nearly killed its astronauts), the rest of the moon missions seemed rather boring to the average American. The TV ratings plummeted. Very soon Americans were screaming at their TV screens: dammit, not another moonwalker on my TV, I wanted to match my soap operas and quiz shows today.
What can we expect regarding the entertainment value of a Mars mission? Based on what happened during the Apollo missions, and other factors I will explain, I think that the average person may not watch television coverage of a manned Mars mission for more than about 2% of the days that it operates.
Surely the TV ratings will be very high when the astronauts first blast off into space. But then the astronauts will go on a long, dull trip to Mars that may take between 3 months and 9 months. Almost no one will tune in to see the astronauts during this time, just as almost no one watches the astronauts in the International Space Station.
The TV ratings will rise again when the astronauts go into orbit around Mars, and land on the planet. The first exploration of the Mars surface will no doubt be watched by hundreds of millions. But I predict that the TV ratings will then plunge. People will quickly grow bored by watching astronauts walk around on the surface of Mars, just as quickly as they grew bored by the sight of astronauts walking around on the surface of the moon. One of the reasons is quite obvious: the surface of Mars simply isn't very interesting, as it lacks any visible form of life.
As for the long return mission to Earth, that will be an even worse TV ratings disaster than the trip from Earth to Mars. There will be a spike in the TV ratings when the astronauts finally return to Earth. So let us imagine a 6-month trip to Mars, with two months of exploration, and a 6-month return. That would be 425 days. The average American would probably only pay close attention on five of these days: when the astronauts leave Earth, when they first enter into orbit around Mars, when they land on Mars, when they first walk around on the surface, and when they return to Earth. Even if you allow three additional days for watching astronauts walk around on the surface, it would only amount to 8 watching days out of 425, or only 2% of the total mission.
Part of the problem will be competition. Ask yourself: why do you not go to the NASA web site, and watch live web cams of the astronauts in the International Space Station? Part of the reason is: when you have free time, there are 500 other things you can do, some of which are a lot more entertaining. You have a choice between watching hundreds of cable TV channels, or viewing thousands of fascinating web sites. Or you can play any of thousands of exciting interactive games on your gaming console. It's so much different from the days of the first manned space missions. Back then the average person only got three TV channels, and the three TV networks took over the airwaves during the space missions. So during a space mission in the early 1960's, your choices for entertainment were something like (1) read a book; (2) play a board game; (3) listen to a phonograph record; or (4) watch the space mission on TV. But now if you follow a space mission on TV or on the web, you are choosing only one of thousands of exciting entertainment choices. Given this competition, the entertainment value of a manned space mission dwindles.
By the time a manned space mission to Mars takes off, the entertainment competition will be even greater. Just to give you a taste of coming attractions, according to this New Yorker story, game developers are working on a title called No Man's Sky which will supposedly let virtual travelers “explore eighteen quintillion full-featured planets.” By the time a manned Mars mission launches, there will probably be a first-class virtual reality system used by millions of people. Even 99% of space enthusiasts may prefer to “walk around” virtual life-bearing planets using virtual reality headsets, rather than just watching astronauts walk around a planet with no visible signs of life.
It may be argued that a certain percentage will always prefer to observe reality rather than virtual reality. But even in the “real science” department, a manned mission to Mars will face stiff competition. By the time such a mission launches, the James Webb Telescope will be in business, offering breathtaking new images of deep space every day. There will also be countless other exciting scientific breakthroughs, if anything remotely close to the “singularity” occurs. Such breakthroughs may include finding life on planets revolving around other stars. We can imagine a science enthusiast checking the science news while astronauts are exploring Mars. Such a person might give merely a glance to the Mars results, and spend 95% of his science reading time looking at scientific discoveries far more interesting than the exploration of a planet with no visible life.
Some might argue that people will be fascinated by the exploration elements of a Mars mission, by the “finding what's over the next hill” element of it. But the exploration of a particular area of Mars is unlikely to have many visual surprises. The surface of Mars has already been thoroughly radar-mapped and photo-mapped. You can download “terrain files” that allow you to virtually fly over any part of the surface of Mars. So we pretty much know what astronauts are going to find when they explore some particular area. We can imagine people saying they don't even want to watch the live TV coverage of a Mars mission because they have already “been there, done that” using their virtual reality system.
In short, a manned Mars mission may be a “bust” in terms of entertainment value. So we must probably look for some other rationale that might justify such a mission. Future unmanned exploration might provide such a rationale, if some exciting new discovery were to be found on the Mars surface. But if we don't find anything terribly interesting in the next ten or 15 years, then the overall human reaction to a manned Mars mission may be something like a giant yawn. Such a problem might be reduced if some innovative approach was taken to spice up a Mars mission, to increase the human interest element. There's got to be a more interesting agenda for a Mars mission than just “look around and pick up rocks.”