Even advocates of a strong space program have to shake their heads at NASA’s manned Mars mission. Sometime in the 2030s NASA wants to put astronauts on Mars. Just a few problems. There’s no mission profile – not even a plan of record. The only identified hardware for the mission – the SLS heavy-lift booster and the Orion crew capsule – are multi-mission systems that by themselves incapable of getting astronauts to Mars. Health issues for the crew – prolonged exposure to zero-G and high levels of radiation over a multi-year period – have not been resolved. And all of this uncertainty has led to budgetary guesstimates for the Mars shot that range from $ 100 billion to over $ 200 billion. (This spending to be undertaken by an agency with multiple missions that spends under $ 20 billion a year.)
The truth is that NASA isn’t going to make it. (The National Research Council agrees.) Until NASA commits to a Mars mission profile and a collection of crew quarters, landers and propulsion systems that have been funded by Congress, the notion of a landing in the 2030s is a fantasy. Yes, since 2010 a Mars landing has been a cornerstone of national space policy. But here are three reasons NASA should leave the Mars mission to Elon Musk and the Mars One colonization crowd:
1. There’s a Better Way to Find Life on Mars
If the fundamental rationale for Mars exploration is finding life on Mars, sending a handful of manned missions to points across the face of the planet for limited amounts of time isn’t the way to do it. Systematic deployment of dozens of small, identically configured unmanned landers operating over a period of years could do the job with higher probability of success and at a far lower cost. (Since 2012 the Curiosity Mars rover has been zipping around Mars. It’s cost – $ 2.5 billion – is about 1% of the cost of a manned Mars mission.) Such a program would also spur the further development of advanced microscopic biosensors that could enhance medical care here on Earth.
2. There Are Other Priorities NASA Needs to Pursue
NASA has slipped into its Mars exploration roadmap a manned mission to a nearby asteroid in order to test out the Orion system as well as other critical subsystems needed for a Mars mission. It highlights what should be a higher priority for NASA – characterizing NEOs (near earth objects) and understanding what can be done about the existential threat they pose. Putting together the systems and infrastructure that can rendezvous with and deflect high threat NEOs is not only a worthy goal, it’s a long term effort that’s already fostering international cooperation and need not bankrupt the nations that participate.
The search for life in other parts of the solar system, particularly the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, are equally worthy objectives. Developing a series of spacecraft to undertake this search poses tremendous technical challenges, and success could offer new insights in molecular biology, biochemistry and evolution.
Finally, NASA needs to improve its track record in developing new propulsion technology. Whether boosting into near earth orbit or going to Saturn, NASA (and the world) depend on rocket propulsion technology first outlined in the early parts of the 20th century. There have been some interesting developments by the private sector, but much, much more is needed. For starters, NASA needs to develop and demonstrate a practical ion thruster technology powered by a small, safe, high performance nuclear reactor.
3. A Manned Mars Mission Would Gut NASA
It’s a fact – NASA doesn’t know how to budget major programs. Whether it’s the International Space Station or the Webb Telescope, the bigger the project, the bigger the overrun. The pattern is clear – underestimate the budget to secure Congressional approval; gradually announce a series of overruns; take funding from other NASA projects to cover the added costs, but above all, keep the big project rolling. A Mars mission, more complex and with technical obstacles that go far beyond those presented by the Moon shots in the 1960s, would be a cost and project management disaster of biblical proportions.
Even if astronauts set foot on Mars, their time there would be brief, and at a cost in political capital and hard cash that would leave most politicians and taxpayers convinced that NASA should never again be entrusted with the nation’s most important space science exploration goals.
Pack it up NASA. All the mission planning workshops. The simulations in Hawaii. The medical work on board the International Space Station. The manned Mars rover. The new spacesuits. Cancel them all. Start focusing on important missions that can actually be achieved.