Why it’s so hard to get to Mars

Mars Dunes after rover crossing by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. This was taken by the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) during the 538th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity’s work on Mars (Feb. 9, 2014). (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

[Programming note: It’s D-Day+70. Not many of those soldiers are still with us, but the Post profiles some today. See this piece by Michael Ruane. Here’s the Post’s front page from D-Day. The original Associated Press dispatch is great: Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (AP) — Allied troops landed on the Normandy coast of France in tremendous strength by cloudy daylight today and stormed several miles inland with tanks and infantry in the grand assault which Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.”]

This week we saw a new report on NASA’s human spaceflight program. It is not impressed with NASA’s strategy. It says NASA should probably go back to the moon and then on to Mars. Author’s query: How many of these reports have there been since the 1980s? And how many have said we should go back to the moon and then on to Mars? How long until there’s another report saying NASA is adrift and ought to go back to the moon and then on to Mars?

Linda Billings has pointed me to some of the reports over the years:

Here’s one from 1986, the “Paine Report” from the National Commission on Space (Dr. Billings helped staff that one). Excerpt:

The Commission firmly believes that we should go back to the Moon and on to Man for sustained, permanent activities. To reduce transport costs, it will be effective to locate spaceports at Libration Points or in orbit around the Moon and Mars. To reduce costs on the Mars Run, a third spaceport would be useful to serve as a transportation terminal, located in high orbit, possibly at the Ll Point. All spaceports, whether in orbit or at Libration Points around Earth, the Moon, or Mars, will share the same modular design, with modules grouped as necessary for each task. All spaceports will rotate to provide artificial gravity. As in the case of the Variable-g Research Facility, rotation rate and center of gravity at the spaceport will be controlled by the adjustment of outstretched tethers.

There was the Ride Report (as in Sally) in 1987. Excerpt from the Conclusion:

We should explore the Moon for what it can tell us, and what it can give us — as a scientific laboratory and observing platform, as a research and technology test bed, and as a potential source of important resources. While exploring the Moon, we would learn to live and work on a hostile world beyond Earth. This should be done in an evolutionary manner, and on a time scale that is consistent with our developing capabilities.

The natural progression of human exploration then leads to Mars. There is no doubt that exploring, prospecting, and settling Mars should be the ultimate objectives of human exploration.

In 1989 came the 90-Day Study, a response to President George H.W. Bush’s plan known as the “Space Exploration Initiative.” Excerpt:

We are going back to the Moon, and then we are going to Mars. The shape of human exploration of space is clear.

And the hits keep comin’. There was the Augustine Report of 1990, not to be confused with the 2009 report from the Augustine Committee, and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report, and the Vision for Space Exploration (2004). What am I missing?

Shorter version of all of this: The most attractive destination in space for human exploration is Mars. But putting people on the surface of Mars is extremely difficult and expensive if you want them to survive the process. It’s theoretically possible but politically problematic. The taxpayers aren’t eager to pay for it. The private sector can’t turn a profit doing it.

So until someone comes up with a brilliant way around this conundrum, maybe we should go back to the moon and, like, pretend we’re on Mars, practicing our life-on-another-world moves. Live off the land. Do some science. Also we’ll build some new rockets and capsules and fly around the moon and do interesting things like fiddle with captured asteroids. We’ll keep the aerospace industry and the Space Senators happy. And we’ll point to these various rockets and asteroid missions and grand strategic plans and say we’re on our way to Mars even though, as it stands, we’re not. That appears to be the plan.




Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



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