HONR 289V:
Exploring Mars
Spring 2018

Class Webpage: http://www.astro.umd.edu/~hamilton/HONR

HONR289V Course Description

We live at an exciting time for planetary exploration. Our robotic spacecraft have journeyed to all of the planets and to a number of asteroids and comets as well. Our probes have orbited other planets, dipped into their atmospheres, and driven across alien landscapes. We have brought samples back from the Moon and from nearby asteroids. Humans have safely traveled in space for half a century and have walked and driven on the surface of the Moon. As our nearest potentially habitable planetary neighbor, Mars has been a prominent target for the full history of space exploration, and its importance only increases when we contemplate the potential for future human visits. This course will address big questions in Mars exploration. What have we learned from the past 50 years of spacecraft visits? What is the proper balance between robotic and human exploration today, and for the next decade? And finally, what long term Mars exploration goals should our society be working toward?

This subject lies at the intersection of many areas of human endeavor. On the one hand, science discoveries refocus our attention in new directions, inform engineering design, and allow for ever more capable space vehicles. Policy decisions, fiscal realities, and international collaborations and rivalries interact in complicated ways to affect what we actually choose to do as a society. In HONR289V, we will explore these important issues by first tracing the history of Mars exploration over time, understanding its costs, benefits, and the forces that drive it forward. We will then look at mission plans for the near future, the next twenty years or so, to get a sense of where we are headed. Are we headed in the right direction? If not, what can be done to change the direction? Finally, we will consider what Mars exploration might look like over your lifetimes. Should the ultimate goal of our exploration program be human visitations, a permanently manned base, or full colonization?

I have several objectives in teaching HONR289V. First, I want you all to gain a greater appreciation of the exciting history of the unmanned Mars program. Along the way, we will learn a great deal about Mars as a planet, and the basics of spaceflight. We will relive the glorious successes of the past and see some spectacular failures. Space flight is inherently dangerous and not for the faint of heart! Second, building on a solid understanding of the fundamentals, I would like you to form informed opinions on a number of Mars exploration issues. What should be our near and long term priorities? There are many differing opinions on these question and no single path forward. You will get the chance to discuss your opinions openly with others who may disagree with you. Through discussion and debate, I would like you to come to consensus on some of the simpler questions, and to paint a clear picture with both pros and cons for the more complicated issues. Finally, we will organize into groups that will focus more intensely on specific questions. Working on a team is an important part of most modern careers, and it is not so often that you get the chance to do so in the classroom. Make the most of the opportunity! Once we have as a firm a grasp of the issues involved as possible, we will together chart our own vision for our Mars exploration policy. This is our overall goal as a class.

Assignments and Grading

Student evaluation will be based on participation in animated discussions, debates, a group project, short quizzes, reading responses, and midterm and final exams.

I grade on a point scale with different assignments weighted as shown in this table.

Reading Responses
Final Project
Midterm Exam I
Midterm Exam II
About 50
About 50

This class is not designed to be an "easy A" - if you are seeking such a class, now is the time to move on. My expectation is that roughly half of you will earn As, half will earn Bs, and no one who puts in a sincere effort and keeps up with the workload will get a lower grade. The number of points required to get a given grade will depend on the class average, however, getting 90%, 80%, 68%, of the total possible points guarantees you at least an A, B, or C, respectively. You can monitor my current estimate of your grade as the semester progresses from the What's my Grade Right Now? link on the class webpage.

Class Policies

This course will conform to all applicable Campus Policies. In addition, I have a specific policy on laptops and cell phones. In principle, laptops can allow you to take notes faster and access the class website but, in practice, they are most often used for other distracting purposes. I prefer that you don't use laptop in class, but please come talk to me if you have a good reason to. And as a courtesy to others, please turn off your cellphones while in class.
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