First, there's been a revival of Fred Singer's 'Ph-D project', which suggested establishing a forward base on one of Mars's two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, before landing astronauts on the planet. It would be economic in terms of fuel, would provide a platform that would allow astronauts to control rovers on the surface of the planet in real time, and would enhance our knowledge of small bodies. The possibility that the moons may harbour ice deposits and could have collected material blasted off Mars by large impacts are enticing bonuses. And Russia's Fobos-Grunt mission, which plans to study Phobos in detail and land on its surface a probe that will return a soil sample to Earth, could pave the way for manned missions. (We'd better make up our minds relatively quickly; the orbits of both Phobos and Deimos and decaying, and in only ten million years the moons will enter the atmosphere and break up and bombard with surface of Mars with debris.)
Second, Paul Davies has an even more radical suggestion to cut costs: send explorers to Mars on a one-way ticket, and begin colonisation of the planet without any prelimary and expensive round-trip manned missions. Supplies could be sent ahead in robot landers; costs would be slashed by 80%; there is, he claims, 'no shortage of eager scientists, young and old, who say they would accept a one-way ticket'. Anyone who's read Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars will feel a definite tingle of recognition; although the pioneers in Robinson's novel were preceeded by manned expeditions rather than a horde of versatile robot explorers, the ethos is the same. As, no doubt, would be the human complications. It's hard to believe that Davies and his supports will overcome NASA's cumbersome caution (although maybe the Chinese would be more receptive), but I thought this raison d'etre very fine:
'A worldwide project to create a second home for humankind elsewhere in the solar system would be the greatest adventure our species has embarked upon since walking out of Africa 100,000 years ago, and provide a unifying influence unparalleled in history.'And after Mars, why not the moons of Jupiter and Saturn?
Xposted to Pyr-o-mania.