I came away from the 3-day conference pretty convinced that humans will be traveling to Mars to stay, by about 2040. It could be sooner – more on that further down this blog. The conference consisted mostly of NASA and industry presenters outlining the current NASA plan for a phased process to develop space assets so that astronaut scientists can be sent to orbit Mars early in the 2030’s, to be followed by landing missions in the late 2030’s. I also saw, first hand, the very cautious and risk averse culture which is NASA, given the need to seek government funding through several administrations in order for their envisioned mission to actually happen. They have quite simply become convinced that any accidents cannot be survived by the agency, so each phase is planned to go through many many tests and small steps to the next phase. The key phases are captured in this NASA graphic, used often at the conference…
In short, the current NASA plan calls for development, test and flight of two systems in the near term – the Orion crew vehicle which has already been flown in an unmanned configuration, and a new heavy launch rocket called the SLS for Space Launch System. The intent of spending years on these phases include developing an ability to conduct a variety of deep space (beyond low Earth orbit) missions, for example to the moon and to asteroids while also developing the Mars capabilities. The SLS will have competition from the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which though capable of lifting less mass, will be ready sooner and reportedly capable of launching payloads for one tenth the price of the SLS. So that will be in interesting competition.
[Note – while writing this just now I paused to watch the live feed of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the Thaicom 8 satellite to geostationary orbit, which included another successful landing of the first stage rocket back on the drone ship in the ocean, all which are indicative of the rapid progress currently happening within space industries. Still thrilling to me to watch, both for the successful technology demonstration, and for how excited the young engineers are at the accomplishment.]
With these two building blocks operational, NASA then plans to move ahead with several deep space missions testing equipment while doing useful missions, including developing a permanent presence in CISLUNAR space, or lunar orbit, and an asteroid retrieval mission in the 2020’s. During all of this these missions a variety of unmanned explorations of Mars are scheduled to continue about every other year. These will include eventually prepositioning on Mars several landing ships, to include habitats, fuel and supplies, and proposed 3-D printers to harvest Mars assets to begin manufacturing
When these missions are complete and spaceships capable of up to a year of human travel are proven, a manned mission to Mars orbit will be next. From orbit astronauts will operate robot probes on the Mars surface, retrieve samples and confirm the likely landing spot for a fixed Mars base on the surface. With that done, NASA finally plans to fly 4 astronaut scientists to land on Mars in about 2039, where they will conduct research for a few weeks before returning to Earth, leaving behind a reusable base.
Why go to Mars?
There are three major reasons discussed for developing a permanent human outpost on Mars, eventually a human colony or civilization.
First is the “backup” argument. The Earth has been struck by major asteroids at least five times in evolutionary history, wiping out virtually all life. Just as we would back up a hard drive against catastrophe it makes sense, if we have the capability, to do the same with human civilization. Just putting a library on the Moon or Mars is not enough, it would take a substantial human civilization already there to rebuild. Elon Musk is not the only one suggesting this as a priority but he is a key one.
Second is the scientific research that humans can do. Yes we have learned a lot from robot landers and rovers, but, as several NASA scientists pointed out at the conference, a human geologist with a few tools could accomplish in one day on Mars what it takes months to learn with a rover. Was there life on Mars, is there life on Mars? What are the real prospects of living there in great numbers? People have to go there to answer these and other questions. Interestingly, when you actually calculate the cost of sending humans and learning things quickly versus sending robots and having to support the robot missions for many years to achieve the same learning, the argument that robots are cheaper is not true.
Third is the Walmart argument. We have learned even just in the last couple of years that Mars is rich with water, even flowing water. In fact, there is so much water on Mars that were it all to melt the entire planet could be covered by a sea 400 feet deep. So, even since the hit movie The Martian was written and included harvesting oxygen from the thin atmosphere, now we know that oxygen could be obtained from abundant water. But that is not all. Other gases like the hydrogen in water, methane, and abundant minerals of various kinds mean that, in a future space-faring civilization of a century from now, when humans are living in and exploring the entire solar system and perhaps beyond, Mars will probably act as a giant department store or filling station for space activity, as 3D printers, fuel harvesters, etc. act in concert with the relative ease of access into and out out Mars orbit and atmosphere to make it a central economic hub of the solar system. If we succeed in dealing with Earth problems in the coming century, this vision will quite likely become real.
Why not sooner?
Two critiques were offered at the Humans to Mars conference of the relatively slow NASA timeline for the Mars missions. Buzz Aldrin of lunar landing fame argued that NASA is too cautious and advocated his Mars Recycler vision. Essentially this involves setting up sooner than later a permanent set of spacecraft cycling between Earth and Mars using orbital mechanics and the periods when Mars and Earth are close (as now) to establish a cheaper and permanent transportation highway between Earth and Mars.
The other critique comes from the Mars Society and its director, Dr. Robert Zubrin, who has long advocated a Mars direct mission. Similar to the Mars Cycler in some ways, the idea is to send pre-positioned habits and supplies via long, slow missions that are cheap, and then each time Mars and Earth are near be sending astronauts and settlers back and forth in faster ships. Zubrin makes a pretty compelling case that all the cautious testing is not needed, as we know more about how to get to and live on Mars now than we did about going to the Moon in 1961, yet back then the mission was completed in 8 years. He asks, why do we have to take so long now unless we admit that we are less capable.
Elon Musk and SpaceX were not at the Humans to Mars conference except as a sponsor, but we do know that Musk is impatient to get to Mars. He plans to send an unmanned landing and sample return mission as soon as 2018, and is reported to be planning to reveal designs for a 100-person Mars colony ship later this year. It is interesting to note that despite its own mission designs, NASA is fully supporting the 2018 Mars landing mission.
I think we are going to Mars. I think we should go to Mars, and I hope it happens sooner than the long NASA plan, though the components of that plan make sense as part of a larger vision toward a space-faring civilization. We will only succeed at this, as a civilization, if we also simultaneously address planetary issues of climate and peace, but assuming that we can do one, there is no reason to think we cannot also do the other. We should do this even at the risk of human volunteers. This week marked the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. 27 people were killed in accidents building that bridge, not an unusual number. Previous generations took great risks to build great things. We should too.