Robert Zubrin started the Mars Society nearly two decades ago with the dream of creating a human settlement on the Red Planet.
“The time has come for humanity to journey to Mars!” he announced one night in the summer of 1998, at the group's founding convention in Boulder, Colo. He then read the society's Founding Declaration: “We must go, not for us, but for the people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians.”
This reporter was there and filed a story for The Washington Post's Style section. In the years since, Zubrin has continued to lobby for humans to go to Mars — though no one has managed to get beyond low Earth orbit since the last moon landing in 1972. Until recently, NASA branded virtually everything it was doing as part of a “Journey to Mars,” and Mars remains the horizon goal. The destination was even mandated in a recent congressional authorization act for NASA that was signed by President Trump.
In the meantime, NASA has more modest plans — and these plans don't please Zubrin, for one.
NASA wants to put a “spaceport” in orbit around the moon. It would be a habitat for astronauts on long-duration missions. You could call it a “space station” if you wanted, though it wouldn't be nearly as big as the one that's circling the Earth right now. NASA refers to it as the Deep Space Gateway and describes it as “a crew tended spaceport in lunar orbit.”
This is NASA's next big human spaceflight project, which is supposed to materialize in the mid-2020s. Astronauts would live in the spaceport for as much as a year at a time.
The agency's stated goal is to test the systems necessary for a human mission to Mars. Any Mars mission would take something on the order of 2½ years round-trip, with seven or eight months in transit each way. On a Mars mission, there's no turning around halfway. The crew can't be resupplied. The life support system can't be swapped out when something goes wrong. There are no pit stops — no oases in interplanetary space where one could pause to slake one's thirst.
So NASA wants to do what effectively would be a trial run, only at a point in space just three days away by rocket transport (as opposed to the International Space Station, which is more like three hours away).
The NASA lunar spaceport plan has the redeeming feature of being technologically doable in the near term under plausible budgets. But it's also a far more modest goal than sending humans to Mars.
Zubrin, for one, thinks it's a terrible idea.
“NASA's Worst Plan Yet” blares the headline in National Review over Zubrin's byline. He opens with a reference to the now-defunct, “absurd” Asteroid Redirect Mission developed by NASA under President Barack Obama (The Washington Post described it as “NASA's Mission Improbable.") Then Zubrin writes: “Amazingly, the space agency has managed to come up with an even dumber idea.”
Zubrin considers the lunar spaceport a waste of money — an idea designed merely as a way to give the new Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule somewhere to go.
We caught up with Zubrin on Tuesday at the Newseum, where he participated in a forum sponsored by the Atlantic titled “On the Launchpad: Return to Deep Space.” (Among others speaking at the forum were Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot and former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan.)
“What we have right now is just drift — it's not a program,” Zubrin told the forum. He said the lunar spaceport is not needed to go to Mars or even to the surface of the moon. It's just a way to spend money, he said: “There is not a plan. This is random activity.”
After the presentations, Zubrin gave The Post some additional thoughts on what he perceives as NASA's failure to come up with a bold and coherent plan. He said that in the long history of NASA studies on the future of human spaceflight — and there is a long list of these lengthy reports — no one ever suggested that an orbital lunar outpost was a necessary part of an exploration program. Part of the problem, as he sees it, is the agency's recent announcement that the first, uncrewed flight of the Space Launch System rocket will be delayed again, to 2019: “The tragedy of SLS is not that it is being delayed. The tragedy is that it doesn't matter that it's being delayed, because there's nothing for it to launch anyway.”
John Logsdon, professor emeritus of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, weighed in on Zubrin's comments.
“Robert has always lived in a parallel universe of what ought to be rather than what is,” Logsdon said gently as Zubrin stood beside him.
We asked Logsdon why NASA is building this spaceport in lunar orbit.
“It's a sneaky way to go back to the moon,” he said.
Zubrin chimed in, “If you want to go back to the moon, go back to the moon!”
The backstory here is that President George W. Bush had a back-to-the-moon program, called Constellation. Obama killed it. Two of the three big elements of that program — a heavy-lift rocket and a new crew capsule — were preserved by powerful members of the Senate. The result is that NASA is spending billions of dollars on hardware to put astronauts in the vicinity of the moon, but there's no way to get them down to the surface. If an international partner offered up the money for a lander, NASA presumably could put astronauts back on the moon.
Mary Lynne Dittmar, who advocates on behalf of the aerospace industry as head of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, defended the NASA plans on stage, and then again in an interview with The Post. We asked her about Logsdon's suggestion that NASA's lunar spaceport is really a way to get humans back on the moon.
“It's not sneaky,” she said, and pointed us to a NASA request for proposals for ways to deliver cargo to and from the lunar surface. She said the Deep Space Gateway makes sense: “Think of the ISS as the first foothold. This is the second foothold.”
Everyone agrees that Mars is the horizon goal. But Mars is hard. The moon is close, cosmically speaking. We are already seeing a shift toward “commercial” spaceflight, so it could be that the first people on Mars will arrive in spaceships with private company logos and participating in a reality TV show. (Crazier things have happened!) Elon Musk really wants to go to Mars with SpaceX, and his drive and ambition are not to be discounted. Jeffrey P. Bezos (disclosure: he owns The Washington Post) has invested much of his fortune in the rocket company Blue Origin, and he repeatedly has said he wants lots of people doing lots of things in space.
So where will NASA be in, say, 2027?
Logsdon said, “Humans will be back on the moon.”
Zubrin agreed: “I think that's possible actually — if you're asking me what is likely, rather than what I'd like.”