ed | Misdirection on Mars

Within the historical past of warfare, it has generally been the observe of armies to decorate themselves within the uniforms of their adversaries after which commit atrocities with a view to discredit the opposite aspect. Alternatively, such falsely uniformed struggle criminals have positioned themselves amongst opposing forces, in order that, posing as mates, they may misdirect them to their doom.

It’s on this custom that O. Glenn Smith and Paul Spudis, two die-hard opponents of Mars exploration, not too long ago selected to costume themselves as advocates of their Commentary “Mars for Solely $1.5 Trillion” [March 9, page 19], which is designed to make a possible enterprise seem completely unfeasible.

The mission plan claimed to be crucial by Smith and Spudis begins with the nonsensical thought that somebody would use a monstrosity the scale of the Worldwide House Station for a disposable Mars mission transit car, and continues with the vanity of saddling each Mars mission with the total improvement and a number of other decades-long manufacturing, launch and on-orbit meeting program of the ISS. On the premise of this, they calculate {that a} “ballpark value for the primary human Mars mission in 2035 would whole $230 billion” and “if we ship 9 crews to Mars, the overall invoice could be within the neighborhood of $1.5 trillion.”

To get a grasp of how absurd these estimates are, one want solely level out that present and up to date NASA budgets have been round $18 billion, together with a human spaceflight price range of about $4 billion. So what Smith and Spudis are claiming is that sending 9 flights to Mars would value NASA’s full price range for the following 80 years, or the whole lot of its human spaceflight price range for 375 years.

Nothing of the type is important. Sending people to Mars doesn’t contain constructing fantastical, monumental interplanetary spaceships. Fairly, it requires three flight components of about 100 metric tons mass, comprising 30 tons of payload and 70 tons of trans-Mars propulsion, every of which might be delivered to orbit by two SpaceX Falcon Heavy rockets or one augmented NASA House Launch System booster.

Mars Ascent Automobile for Europe’s Mars sample-return mission. Credit score: European House Company

One in every of these flight components would include an Earth return car (ERV), which might be stationed in a extremely elliptical Mars orbit from which it might simply take flight for Earth. One other could be a Mars ascent car (MAV), which might be delivered to the Martian floor along with a 30-kilowatt-electric energy system and an in-situ propellant manufacturing unit that might enable it to make most of its ascent propellant out of the native environment.

As soon as this fueling operation is accomplished, the third flight aspect, consisting of a habitat spacecraft with a crew of 4 astronauts, could be despatched on a six-month voyage to Mars, to be landed close to the MAV. The astronauts would then use their habitat craft as their base on Mars for 18 months of exploration, after which they might use the MAV to ascend and rendezvous with the ERV. The ERV would then take them on a six-month transit again to Earth, on the finish of which they might enter and land utilizing a small bailout capsule equivalent to a Dragon or downsized Orion. The habitat would stay behind on Mars, so that every mission might add one other such unit to the bottom, quickly build up the infrastructure of the primary human settlement on a brand new world.

There’s nothing in such a plan that’s essentially past our know-how.

Nor would it not be past our monetary means. The marketed value of the Falcon Heavy is $100 million. We would wish six such launchers per mission, which might happen each different 12 months, for a median program launch price range of $300 million per 12 months, or lower than 2 p.c of the area company’s present price range. NASA at the moment plans to spend $3 billion per 12 months on the SLS to have it do nothing. The incremental value of truly making good use of it to launch three boosters each different 12 months (for a 1.5 launch-per-year common fee) would even be negligible. The price of the modest payload components required could be equally two orders of magnitude lower than the budgets for the “Battlestar Galactica” method set out as a baseline by Smith and Spudis as effectively.

So, opposite to their claims, we actually can have an area program worthy of the American pioneer spirit. We don’t want to simply hold going nowhere, or returning to locations we explored a half-century in the past. We don’t must disappoint yet one more era by failing to just accept the problem of trying inspiring deeds. Fairly than sending astronauts to the moon to this point craters to gratify the scientifically trivial obsessions of lunar geologists equivalent to Spudis, we will go to Mars to make elementary discoveries in regards to the potential prevalence and variety of life within the universe. Fairly than suggest to dig in on the moon to make mindlessly make propellant for an area program that doesn’t go anyplace, we will truly go, and turn into the primary explorers, pioneers and settlers of a brand new world stuffed with wonders ready to be found and historical past ready to be made.

The American human spaceflight program is in very dangerous form proper now. It’s working and not using a coherent and rational objective, and until such a objective is embraced and an clever plan set forth to realize it, the drift and waste will solely proceed till such time because the taxpayers, shedding endurance, put it out of its distress.

We want an actual and trustworthy debate about objectives and means, and makes an attempt to unfold disinformation and confusion don’t assist. If Smith and Spudis have a case for a lunar base, they need to simply make it, with out serving as patrons of ignorance with respect to the alternate options.

America is a can-do nation. Given the desire, dedication and braveness, we will definitely make it to Mars inside much less time than it took a a lot poorer United States to get to the moon a half-century in the past. To say we will’t is to just accept the concept we now have turn into a lot lower than the folks we was once. That’s what we can not afford.


Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society and the creator of “The Case for Mars.” His newest work, “Mars Direct: House Exploration, the Red Planet, and the Human Future,” was not too long ago revealed by Penguin.

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