Thanks to the recent smash hit movie, “The Martian,” Mars and the prospect of sending people to explore it seems to be on again. The fact that NASA discovered that water flows on the Martian surface from time to time certainly helped matters.
However, turning the movie into reality is going to be a daunting task. A document, filled with beautiful pictures and inspirational text, recently published by NASA as the space agency’s plan for the Journey to Mars, was lacking in specifics, especially how much the journey is going to cost.
Clearly, NASA has a few things it needs to work out before the boots of astronauts hit the Martian soil.
The first thing that the space agency has to do is to be honest about what sending people to Mars and presumably getting them back safely to the Earth is going to cost. The current stagnant NASA budget is not going to be enough for any human Mars exploration program that is meaningful. Either NASA will have to drop everything else, space science, planetary missions, Earth science, and aeronautics, and devote its full resources to the Mars project, or it will need to have its annual budget increased significantly.
The next thing NASA has to do is to find ways to cuts costs. Two things come to mind.
First, the space agency needs to seek out international and commercial partners. International partners could share in the cost of the Journey to Mars. Commercial partners, unburdened by the bureaucratic ways of NASA, will be able to find affordable, innovative solutions to the problems of interplanetary travel.
Second, NASA should return to the moon and establish a base there before sending astronauts to Mars. A lunar base has all sorts of benefits, ranging from science to resource exploitation, but the chief advantage about missions to Mars is its function as a refueling depot. The moon has abundant deposits of water in the form of ice. The base can refine water into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, the components of rocket fuel. Most of the mass of a spacecraft launched from Earth is comprised of fuel. If a ship headed for Mars can top off at a refueling stop in cislunar space, it will not need to carry that fuel from Earth at great expense. Scientists at MIT have released a study that agreed on the benefits of this approach.
Creating a lunar base will involve additional costs. But once the refueling operation is up and running, it can support deep space exploration for the next few centuries. The cost savings for several human Mars missions, not to mention robotic probes to the outer planets and their moons, and travel to and from the moon, will be – no pun intended – astronomical.
While NASA is getting serious about going to Mars, the Congress and the White House are going to have to do their parts. A decades-long program of human Mars exploration is going to need a commitment from multiple presidents and congresses. There is no place for the sort of attention deficit disorder that has caused other long-term space projects, such as the Constellation program, to be canceled part-way through. Funding has to be made available year after year into the foreseeable future. Setbacks, distractions, and even cost overruns have to be dealt with and not used as an excuse to give up.
Since Apollo, the United States has proven that it can, from time to time, commit to a long-term space project and stick with it. The space shuttle program lasted about 40 years from the time President Nixon proposed it to the day the last orbiter landed. The space station, first proposed by President Reagan in 1984, will last at least the same period of time, even though Congress came close to cancelling it several times and the project endured a revamping during the Clinton administration.
To sum up, to paraphrase Napoleon, if you start to go to Mars, then go to Mars. Half-measures and hesitancy are a waste of time and money.