As we await the announcement on who will be leading NASA, a blizzard of op-ed pieces from Mars advocates have been appearing on news and opinion sites. Their arguments are familiar: the Journey to Mars is human destiny, we go in search of alien life, it’s the “only planet” that can support human settlement (a very misleading statement), and of course, Mars is the “obvious” next goal in space. Needless to say, the aim of this sudden barrage of published Marsophilia is to stampede the new administration into making some grand pronouncement—to accept their high profile advocacy and be carried along, thereby crystallizing their movement into permanent national policy.
These efforts come from a particular viewpoint about the nature and purpose of human spaceflight, one that sees the Apollo program—now over 50 years distant in the past—as the glory days of the space program. That era, although rightfully celebrated for its great strides and dramatic events, was not the harbinger of a new era of human expansion into space.
When President Kennedy advocated a manned landing on the Moon within a decade, his objective was not to establish a permanent presence in space, but to challenge and beat the Soviets in achieving a recognized goal of great difficulty. Driven by geopolitical urgencies, there was a huge spike in spending on space, with the NASA budget rising to almost five percent of total federal spending at peak. That money built not only the Apollo-Saturn spacecraft system, but also bought the infrastructure (launch pads, laboratories, offices, etc.) necessary to support it.
Because Apollo had to be accomplished on a very tight schedule, choices were made in the technical approach that favored the big, the massive, and the disposable. The objective was man-Moon-decade—everything else was a distant second, including the cost of fabrication and operations. After Apollo had achieved its goal, that system was discontinued in favor of a reusable Space Shuttle, in hopes that lower cost and routine access might enable more space activity. The routine aspect was accomplished, but because the Shuttle was a delicate, complex flight system, many man-hours of work were required to refurbish the orbiters for each mission, making operating Shuttle more costly than envisioned. But with it, we built the International Space Station (ISS), delivered and retrieved satellites, delivered the Hubble Space Telescope and returned to it later for repairs—a national program demonstrating how people and machines can productively work together in space.
Still, new journeys beyond ISS and low Earth orbit (LEO) were always in the agency’s crosshairs. The idea that Mars should be the next goal came out of Wernher von Braun’s original vision, or rather, a misunderstanding of that vision. Von Braun advocated a systematic, incremental approach to human spaceflight—Earth-to-orbit, space station, Moon tug, and then a Mars spacecraft. But that incremental approach was abandoned with Apollo. Our journey to the Moon was conducted in an emergency mode due to national priorities and security concerns that dictated operations. Thus, technical problems were not systematically studied and considered—they were just bludgeoned into compliance with cash.
Attempts to resurrect an Apollo mode of operation for Mars is inappropriate and has actually hindered our advancement in spacefaring activities for decades. The current NASA budget is about 0.5 percent of the annual federal budget, less than 10 percent of the peak funding level available during Apollo. Given our mounting federal debt and pressing national needs, it’s almost certain there will be no significant budget increases for space in the foreseeable future.
The idea that we can go to Mars using the same template that we used to go to the Moon 50 years ago is ridiculous. It is simply not possible to load up a single rocket, launch and go, discarding pieces along the way. A human Mars mission requires hundreds of tons of equipment and fuel in space, all delivered, assembled and timed to be ready for use at the precise moment every 26 months when a departure window to the red planet opens. The NASA architecture for a human mission to Mars was made in 2009 and has not been revised; it uses several pieces that are unlikely to materialize, to say the least (e.g., a nuclear thermal rocket departure stage). And we still do not know how to land there with a reasonable level of safety. In contrast, several feasible and affordable plans already exist for a return to the Moon using existing technology.
The template for future spaceflight can adjust and succeed by taking new shape, one that opens up space to many different disciplines, for a variety of reasons, to a number of destinations. This approach will create a reusable infrastructure that stays in space—a sustainable network located throughout the cislunar region, that area of space beginning in low Earth orbit going up to and including the surface of the Moon. Stations can be established at various points in this region, allowing for the marshalling of equipment and propellant that enables departure and return to these staging points at will. Transit between the various nodes will be conducted by spacecraft specifically designed and optimized for use within their own sphere of operations. Propellant can be made from deposits of ice at the poles of the Moon and thus, we free ourselves from the prohibitively expense situation of having to fuel spacecraft by dragging that necessary dumb mass up from the deep gravity well of Earth’s surface.
Building a permanent transportation system in cislunar space—one fueled by propellant made from lunar ice—creates a system able to reach a wide variety of points in space (including the planets) repeatedly and affordably. The idea that going to the Moon deters and distracts from meaningful advancement in spacefaring is wildly misguided. We do not possess the technology and the resources to conduct a human Mars mission now nor are we likely to 20 years hence by using the Apollo approach. But old habits are hard to break. Because we reached the Moon within a decade by building a mega-rocket and came back to Earth in a single small capsule, Mars advocates assume they can do the same. While in theory it might be possible, it is neither a practical, affordable or desirable approach toward permanently expanding a human presence into the Solar System.
The nation has choices for its long-term strategic direction in space. Do we continue to treat space as an arena for public relations spectacles, using science as window-dressing to give the appearance of long-term societal value? Or should we begin to build a system that continuously and permanently expands human reach beyond low Earth orbit, not only for science but also to build, to create wealth, to call on as needed for national defense, and to live? Make no mistake, this is the essence of the debate—a tug of war over which idea will hold sway and influence our next destination in space. And the simple truth is that a return to the Moon is reachable, affordable and productive, while the Journey to Mars is not.
There is growing awareness of space’s expanding role in national security and commerce, and our increasing dependence on a variety of vulnerable satellites in cislunar space. A permanent, sustainable cislunar space transportation network, fueled by natural resources available on the Moon, could reach these satellites for maintenance, service and protection. Our presence and capability in space is served by a return to the Moon, a goal that was unwisely discarded seven years ago, yet has become the prime target for many other countries. Now is the time for the United States to correct that mistake and retake a leadership role in the development of a growing space economy—a goal that benefits many long term, one that returns benefit for investment, and in doing so creates the necessary infrastructure that in time will permanently open up so many other destinations and opportunities in space. The Moon isn’t the end game—it’s the constructive beginning of humanity’s expansion into space.