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National Geographic's "Mars" demonstrates the problem with rocket scientists.

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Author: 
Nigel Morris-Cotterill

I've just caught up with the third episode of the genuinely excellent "Mars" on the National Geographic TV Channel.

The programme contains significant input from genuine rocket scientists and people who have studied as much as is currently possible about Mars, how to get there and how to deal with what they find.. But, seemingly, they forgot to ask someone with common sense to join the team.

This week, the primary challenge of the team in this dramatised set-in-the-future reality show was to locate a cave in which there might be water and which is big enough for them to build the dome which will form their habitat.

One was located and it was estimated to have a depth of 200 metres. Naturally, they needed to explore it.

It's important to understand a bit of the background: there had been "pre-cursor" missions which had delivered all kinds of things to the surface of Mars, including a workshop with a 3D printer (which turns out to be the piece of kit everyone thinks of first in just about every situation), several as yet unexplained "huts" with lots of electrical wiring hidden behind the kind of covers you have on the side of your PC and a substantial number of solar panels. These have all be positioned and installed by robots sent from earth. There is also a Rover which is like an MPV on steroids.

So sending payloads to await the arrival of the crew has not been a problem, between now and 2033 when the future part of the programme is set.

Why, then, is there a crisis over water as soon as they arrive? Of course water is heavy but it's the getting it into space bit that's critical: once it's up there, in a tanker, it can be tugged along by one of the supply ships that took up all the other heavy stuff. With all the money that was spent in getting to Mars, a supply station orbiting earth collecting lots of heavy things would be a cost-saving measure.

But that wasn't the only thing: things keep breaking down, even things inside the habitable units. There was a spontaneous fire. I looked carefully but I couldn't see a Samsung badge on any of the kit. But the real problem was that, for the very first fire they had, the fire-killing system (not explained but probably the pumping in of inert gas, the supply of which was, also, not explained) failed.

However, the real question that relates to the over-reliance on rocket-scientists related to exploring the cave. It was a deep vertical shaft. How, one might ask, would a highly intelligent group of people who, by reason of an accident before landing, had already lost their leader, choose to initially scan the cave. They concluded that it was 200 metres deep but they had insufficient cable to reach that depth. The solution, to travel a 150 km journey at the Rover's top speed of 10km per hour, back to their landing craft which had over-shot the target by 75km. There, they would cannibalise it for two additional lengths of cable, splice them together, then put them on a winch fixed to the end of a crane-like arm on one of the robots. Then, one of the crew, would be winched down.

Surely a person with common sense would have realised, before the crew left earth, that if they were going exploring caves, they might be well served to have training and a basic kit for potholing. That would include long, durable and safe climbing rope, along with abseiling kit. We had that 45 years ago, along with thick sweaters, overalls and wellies, when I used to head into the black holes that Derbyshire affords. Have people in 2033 become so highly evolved that they don't think of that, and an aluminium rope ladder as a safety measure in case winching up fails?

For reasons that need not concern us here, the drones carrying cameras were grounded. But the chopper blades (is the atmosphere on Mars dense enough to support helicopters? If so, why were there no personal, four rotor, choppers sent up in advance to facilitate quick and smooth movement across a hostile landscape?) could have been removed and the body, with the cameras sent down before risking another human.

The programme demonstrates a problem across industry and, especially, across legal, compliance and risk management fields. Everyone's a rocket scientist; no one's a practical engineer. Complexity is king, simplicity is rejected.

It's a recipe for disaster, or at least for regulatory risk.

(amended: I originally got the name of the TV channel wrong.).