America’s human spaceflight program is now adrift. The space shuttle has made its final flight, and the Obama administration has no coherent plan as to what to do next. Instead, it has proposed that the United States waste the next decade spending $100 billion to support a goalless human spaceflight effort that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing. In a deeply mistaken move, the administration has even cancelled NASA plans for this decade’s robotic probes to Mars, thus derailing the agency’s most productive program. In the face of a mounting imperative to find ways to cut the federal deficit, this has set up the nation’s space program for the ax.
In order for NASA’s exploration effort to make any progress, it needs a concrete goal, and one that is really worth pursuing. That goal should be sending humans to Mars.
As a result of a string of successful probes sent to the Red Planet over the past 15 years, we now know for certain that Mars was once a warm and wet planet, and continued to have an active hydrosphere for a period on the order of a billion years — a span five times as long as the time it took for life to appear on Earth after there was liquid water here. Thus, if the theory is correct that life is a natural phenomenon emerging from chemistry wherever there is liquid water, various minerals, and a sufficient period of time, then life must have appeared on Mars.
If we go to Mars and find fossils of past life on its surface, we will have good reason to believe that we are not alone in the universe. If we send human explorers, who can erect drilling rigs which can reach underground water where Martian life may yet persist, we will be able to examine it. By doing so, we can determine whether life on Earth is the pattern for all life everywhere, or alternatively, whether we are simply one esoteric example of a far vaster and more interesting tapestry. These things are truly worth finding out.
Furthermore Mars is a bracing positive challenge that our society needs. Nations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. A humans-to-Mars program would be an invitation to adventure to every young person in the country, sending out the powerful clarion call: “Learn your science and you can take part in pioneering a new world.” In return for such a challenge we would get millions of young scientists, engineers, inventors, and medical researchers, making technological innovations that create new industries, find new cures, strengthen national defense, and increase national income to an extent that utterly dwarfs the expenditures of the Mars program.
But the most important reason to go to Mars is the doorway it opens to the future. Uniquely among the extraterrestrial bodies of the inner solar system, Mars is endowed with all the resources needed to support not only life but the development of a technological civilization. For our generation and those that will follow, Mars is the New World. We should not shun its challenge.
We’re ready. Despite its greater distance, we are much better prepared today to send humans to Mars than we were to send men to the Moon in 1961, when President Kennedy started the Apollo program- and we were there eight years later. Future-fantasy spaceships are not needed to send humans to Mars. The primary real requirement is a heavy lift booster with a capability similar to the Saturn V launch vehicle employed in the 1960s. This is something we fully understand how to create.
The mission could then be accomplished with two launches. The first would send an unfueled and unmanned Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) to Mars. After landing, this vehicle would manufacture its own methane/oxygen return propellant by combining a small amount of hydrogen imported from Earth with a large supply of carbon dioxide acquired from the Martian atmosphere. The chemistry required to perform this operation has been widely practiced on Earth since the gaslight era.
Once the propellant is manufactured, the crew is sent to Mars in a habitation module launched by the second booster. The hab module is landed near the ERV and used for a year and a half as the crew’s base for exploring the Martian surface, after which the crew enters the return vehicle and flies home. The hab module is left behind on Mars, so each time a mission is flown, another habitation is added to the base. There is nothing required by such a plan that is beyond our technology.
The issue is not money. The issue is leadership. NASA’s average Apollo-era (1961-73) budget, adjusted for inflation, was about $19 billion a year in today’s dollars, only 5 percent more than the agency’s current budget. Yet, the NASA of the ’60s accomplished a hundred times more because it had a mission with a deadline, and was forced to develop an efficient plan to achieve that mission. If NASA were given that kind of direction, we could have humans on Mars within a decade. If not, we may soon have no human spaceflight program at all.
The American people want and deserve a space program that really is going somewhere. It’s time they got one.
Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and of the Mars Society and author of The Case for Mars. His new book: Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism has just been published by Encounter Books.robert zubrin, human spaceflight, red planet <BR/>
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