Mission to Mars - Future or Fantasy?
By John D. Turner
15 Jan 2004

No one who knows me could doubt that I fully support the President’s goal of bases on the Moon, and a manned, human exploration of Mars. I cut my teeth on Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Lester Del Rey. I have been a strong supporter of the space program since I first became aware of it. I still remember faking a phone call home when I was in grade school, and “borrowing” the family TV set (a “portable” 13” black and white Philco) so I could watch the Atlas/Agena hookup at school back in the mid 60’s. (I got into serious trouble for that one!)

Yes, I would like for President Bush’s space initiative to succeed. I just think that it has about as much likelihood of success as Frosty the Snowman taking a leisurely stroll across the sunward side of Mercury.

Oh to be sure, I think that parts of his plan will survive, particularly the part that calls for retiring the shuttle fleet by 2010. Congress will be more than happy to cut something unrelated to social programs, and re-channel the money into some pet project that translates into campaign money or votes. There will be no new replacement for the Columbia, as there was for Challenger. In fact, I will go a step further. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Shuttle never flies again.

What then will happen to the International Space Station, you may ask. Well, I can think of several scenarios. We could limp along with it as it is, crewed by two astronauts, as a showpiece in space. We could abandon it as a bad deal and use the money to “save social security” or some such. Or we could sell it to the Chinese.

After all, why should we spend all that money on space when we have so many pressing domestic problems down here just crying out for funding? Particularly when we can outsource it to China or India, like we have everything else?

There are several factors at work here that I think will ultimately kill this venture.

First, it is a President Bush initiative. This automatically means that if President Bush fails reelection in November, it is a dead issue. Can anyone here honestly imagine Howard Dean, the likely Democratic candidate at this point, pressing forward with this program? I can’t. And I don’t see any other Democratic candidates jumping on the Space bandwagon either. Quite the opposite, they are all commenting on how, during this time of record deficit spending, we certainly can’t afford the cost of this latest Bush boondoggle. And even if Bush is re-elected, with the Republican majorities in House and Senate intact, there are still the elections in 2006 and 2008 to contend with, not to mention all the ones between there and 2015, the projected date for the return to the Moon, and 2030, the projected date of the first Mars mission.

Next there is the cost. You may remember that Bush’s dad proposed something very similar to this when he was in office. And you may have noticed that it went nowhere. Part of the reason for that was that the price tag for the Mars mission came in around 400-500 billion dollars. And this was over 10 years ago. For a mission that would spend only 3-4 days actually on Mars doing any science or exploration.

Now there were reasons for the high price tag. Part of it was that every aerospace contractor and any company remotely involved in space wanted a piece of the action. Part of it was the mission profile itself, which called for a lunar base, a space station, an on-orbit refueling station, and a spacecraft built in space specifically to be used for a Mars mission. Sound familiar? It should, it’s pretty much what George W. Bush is proposing today.

To be fair, part of this is NASA’s doings. NASA is still smarting from the public’s loss of enthusiasm for its previous Lunar program, which was halted three missions short of its planned termination with no follow-on program, due to lack of interest. NASA, riding high on its success, was rudely awakened when the rug was snatched out from under with nothing to show for it but a few hundred pounds of moon rocks and some excess equipment lying about. This time they are determined to at least get a little infrastructure out of the deal.

But is this the best use of the money? Can a Mars mission be done for less, or does it have to cost $500 billion, some say up to a trillion dollars to put a few astronauts on Mars for a few days.

Some, such as Dr Robert Zubrin, author of “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must”, believe that it can be done for much less, at least an order of magnitude. The Zubrin mission profile calls for a much longer exploration period by the astronauts when they get there – up to 1.5 years, instead of the 3-4 days planned for what he calls the “Battlestar Galactica” mission profile. A description of the Zubrin mission profile, called “Mars Direct” was presented to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearings on the future of NASA, by Dr Zubrin on 29 Oct 2003, when he testified before that committee on the future of the U.S. Space Program. Dr Zubrin’s vision, shared by some in NASA, is very different from the conventional “Battlestar Galactica” approach, and ultimately leads to a permanently manned presence on Mars – but no lunar bases, space stations, or on-orbit refueling stations.

This absence of infrastructure and the possibility that the nation will lose interest and leave NASA with nothing to show for its efforts yet again but a few hundred pounds of rocks is what is driving NASA’s lack of interest, despite the cost savings involved. Of course, the space industry may also have a hand here as well. $50 billion is of course much less than $500 billion. However, $50 billion in the hand is much better than $500 billion in the bush (if you will pardon my pun), and all things being equal, it is more likely that Congress will make a $50 billion commitment vice a $500 billion one. It didn’t do so last time, and isn’t likely to this time.

What NASA seems to be forgetting (along with the rest of us) is that it really isn’t NASA’s function to provide trucking and hotel services in space, or to acquire infrastructure. NASA is supposed to be in the business of exploration. The other stuff should be left to private enterprise. Like any other government agency, however, NASA’s prime goal is survival, and expansion when it can manage it. In this it is like a living organism. And infrastructure that must be maintained guarantees it a budget if the rug gets pulled out again.

Which brings me to the third reason why this plan isn’t likely to succeed. It requires long-term commitment and funding.

I really don’t think this country is capable of either any longer, absent a large, loud, and vocal constituency to which politicians can pander. And there isn’t such a constituency visible or on the horizon on which to hang a mission to Mars. Most people either just don’t care, or would rather the money be spent on them instead.

The time scale and lack of interest pretty much guarantees micromanagement by Congress, whereby budgets are cut and mission/design compromises are introduced. The results of this process can be seen in the Space Shuttle, where what started out as a completely reusable system which was supposed to dramatically cut the cost of putting payloads into space became a partially-reusable system that actually cost more to orbit a payload than a throw-away launch vehicle, and with the International Space Station, which is smaller and much less capable than the original design. Congress may not know much about the technical aspects of space flight, but they are real good at micromanagement and “saving” money by cutting from one program and reallocating to another.

There is even a small but growing minority who believe we never even went to the moon, and that it is all just a government boondoggle/cover-up/propaganda campaign/conspiracy (take your pick) in the first place.

Finally, outside a few science fiction fans, there is really little public interest. President Kennedy’s challenge of putting a man on the moon in by the end of the decade captured the public imagination. His tragic assassination ensured that we would carry out what was perceived by many as his legacy – landing a man on the moon. The landing was, rightly so, hailed as one of the greatest achievements in human history. In the aftermath however, the public lost interest. It became routine, watching those astronauts cavort around on the moon. And it cost money. Money better spent addressing problems (or buying votes) here on Earth.

President Bush is no President Kennedy. Few are being inspired. Worse yet, many simply see it as campaign rhetoric, designed to get him re-elected. The public can get better entertainment these days from Hollywood than they can from NASA. The special effects are better, and it costs less. In the 60’s we were concerned that the Russians might get there first. Today, it’s the Chinese, and we really don’t care much if they do. NASA has done a very poor job of selling the public on why space exploration is of value, as have our national political leaders, many of whom, for their own personal political agendas, pander to other, opposing constituencies, where there are more campaign dollars to be made for their own re-election.

And people are getting bored with hearing of how all the spinoffs from the space program have made their life better. Part of this is because many Americans have no point of reference to understand any longer. They have grown up with computers and microchips, VCRs, DVD and CD players, cell phones and weather satellites. Life is. Don’t tell me about how things were in my parents and grandparents day…what have you done for me lately?

Somewhere along the line, we need to do things in this country because they are for the good of the country. President Bush’s space initiative falls into this category. I would support it if it were proposed by Clinton. Either of them. For a myriad of reasons.

The spin-offs from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were mostly physical, leading to pretty much the entire semiconductor industry as we know it today. Others include such prosaic things as Velcro, Teflon, Tang, and the many products developed incorporating or modifying these over the years. A Mars mission will undoubtedly add to the list. But most important will be spin-offs related to the biological sciences. For while the moon missions took 3 days travel each way, with a few days spent on the moon itself, a Mars mission will take months of travel time in zero-gee, with up to a year and a half spent at 1/3rd gravity on Mars itself. Experiences in Earth orbit for extended periods have uncovered numerous medically-related issues that will have to be addressed before such a mission can go forward. The answers to these problems will have major impact on medical science here on Earth, particularly as they can be applied to improving longevity and quality of life in our aging population.

Can specific advances be predicted? No more so than the people of the 60’s could envision the technology we take for granted today. What is certain however is that such advances will be made, and that we will use them to improve our lives as we have in the past. The advance of knowledge has always brought an advance in consumer applications. One of the biggest generators of such advance has been war. An every-day example would be the preservation of food by canning, which was developed by the French as a means of supplying the armies of Napoleon, allowing them to travel without foraging. This was not done out of humanitarian consideration for the people whose crops and livestock would otherwise be plundered, but rather because foraging takes time, entails a certain amount of disorganization amongst the forces doing the foraging, and makes you dependent on the enemy to supply your needs. Living off your own supplies allowed you to move faster, maintain unit cohesion, and be less affected by tactics such as burning crops to deny them to you. It granted you a tactical and strategic advantage over your enemy. Now of course, we take it for granted that we can go into a supermarket and pick up cans or jars of whatever we want, whether it is in season or not, and can store up as much as we want or need.

How much better to be able to push the frontiers of knowledge, and apply the results to consumer goods, without the goad of war to spur it along! A refocused, revitalized space program that really pushes the frontiers will provide that impetus.

But first, we have to get Frosty across the bright side of Mercury.

Additional links:

The Mars Society
Technological Requirements for Terraforming Mars – Dr Robert Zubrin
Mars Direct Home Page
The Case For Mars – International Conference for the Exploration and Colonization of Mars NASA Spinoffs - Bringing Space down to Earth