Restoring America’s Space Program: An Ambitious But Achievable Path

The XEUS, United Launch Alliance’s concept for a lunar lander based on their ACES cryogenic stage. Such a vehicle could be ready for flight within a few years. From Barr (2015).

Last month’s national election results have confounded this year’s annual crop of retrospective pieces on space. Instead of a guarantee of business as usual, America has elected a President that defies normal political calculation. Hanging in the balance are questions over what President Donald Trump will do about the U.S. space program. His statements over the course of the 2016 campaign have been ambiguous, first advancing the idea that filling in America’s potholes was more important than space, then proclaiming that our civil space program was one of the things that “make America great.” So what might this ambiguity of attitude portend for the coming years?

Decisions made over the last eight years have left us with a hollowed out space program and an agency in complete disarray. So regardless of which strategic direction the new Trump administration decides to pursue, they must first repair the agency tasked with executing our national space policy. Appallingly, a programmatic decision made in conjunction with the earlier Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) architecture (the retirement of the Space Shuttle) was not halted in light of President Obama’s cancellation of that direction, and instead, was permitted (with great fanfare) to proceed apace as these workhorses were shuttled off to museums. That decision terminated America’s ability to deliver astronauts to space, while at the same time, Mars was proclaimed as the agency’s end goal. Lunar return was declared a dead-end repeat of past glories, unworthy of our efforts and replaced with a call for the development of technology for a “Journey to Mars” sometime in the distant future.

Vague promises of an “asteroid mission” and the far-off Mars journey couldn’t fill the void left by the termination of the VSE. A call to permit the more nimble “private sector” to develop and provide human transportation to and from the International Space Station was touted as a new way of conducting spaceflight, but nothing from that quarter is yet available to deliver American crews to space. No American human spaceflight capability – government or private – exists and we continue to purchase Soyuz seats from the Russians as our only access to the ISS, a facility that America largely built and paid for.

The relevance of this history is that the current version of NASA has seen the hemorrhage of competent, experienced spaceflight personnel, along with many businesses that have simply faded away. Hanging around waiting for someone to decide where and how to proceed does not feed families or attract talent. So many of the people who had prepared and operated the Shuttle system were lost to retirement, workforce reduction, and to their own crippling frustration and eventual resignation over an apparently nonexistent future in space.

Meanwhile, NASA management resorts to producing meaningless PR hype (“#Journey to Mars”), hoping to convince the public that the agency is viable and on-track for a human Mars mission “sometime in the 2030s.” In fact, the #Journey to Mars is a complete fraud. There is no architecture that enables a 2030’s mission, no strategy to develop one, and no money to implement such a plan, even if one existed.

The net effect of this institutional drift and strategic confusion is an agency bereft of technical knowledge and capability, an entity claiming to be going somewhere, but without any knowledge of how or when it will do so. Despite a reasonably constant budget of about $20 billion per year (not chicken-feed by any stretch of the imagination), the current program is a hodge-podge of disconnected, disparate efforts that have led to no new or innovative capabilities. Is there a way to recover from this state of disarray? There is, but it will take both strong leadership and purposeful conviction to do so.

Honesty about our situation is the first step. We need to recognize that recovery will not come overnight and that a careful, but constant, movement towards a clear direction of reform and retrenchment must begin. There is no “Journey to Mars,” except in the minds and fantasies of some space buffs. We do not have the technological base, the skilled personnel, or the money to conduct a human mission to Mars by the end of the 2030s. There is no government space hardware or infrastructure to conduct an Apollo-type “flags-and-footprints” mission to Mars on decadal timescales. And there are no reusable “Mars Colonial Transports” waiting to whisk hundreds off to the new world to begin construction of Muskopolis. Dreams and inspiration are important, but human endeavor is ultimately answerable to nature. Facts and a workable architecture must exist in the mix if America wants a stake in a future space economy.

The only way we will ever get to Mars is by incrementally developing an expanding, space-based transportation infrastructure, one that gradually extends human reach – first beyond LEO, and then beyond cislunar space – into the Solar System. The key missing skill set necessary to build such a system is the knowledge and ability to find and use what exists in space to create new spaceflight capabilities.

It is for this reason that I advocate a return to the Moon – not to “plant the seventh American flag” or to one-up the Chinese – but to go and learn how to use and exploit what the Moon has to offer. I often hear the argument that it will “cost more to go to the Moon and make rocket propellant for a Mars mission than it would to launch the water directly from Earth.” This belief nicely misses the whole point of going to the Moon. We do not go there simply to “make propellant” but to learn how to make propellant – and all of the other commodities necessary to sail on the ocean of space. Using off-planet resources is a skill set that must be mastered in order to become a true space faring species.

To return to a vibrant, forward-moving civil space program, we need to plan and execute a series of small robotic missions to the lunar poles to characterize their environments and prospect for water ice. When the Vision for Space Exploration was announced in 2004, we did not know to what extent water was present on the Moon. Now we know that promising deposits exist close to areas of near-permanent sunlight near both poles. Because the availability of power is of overriding importance in any off-planet environment, we can confine our detailed explorations to within a few tens of kilometers of these sunlit areas. This localization simplifies prospecting requirements. Initial work can be done with inexpensive, small, expendable spacecraft, such as hard landers and small, fixed soft-landers, eventually followed up by long-lived surface rovers (depending on the findings of the earlier missions). These surveys will reveal in short order the optimum locations for future surface operations.

After the best locations have been identified, a series of increasingly sophisticated robotic craft can land near the site to demonstrate that the ice can be recovered and processed. After that is done, building infrastructure for a lunar outpost can begin. The basic needs are water-bearing feedstock (ore), a nearby zone of near-constant sunlight for power generation, solar arrays to generate that power, and a small array of equipment to harvest, extract and store the water. These tasks do not require a huge industrial facility on the Moon – the initial robotic equipment needed to undertake this work has a total mass of about 20 tones. Emplacement of all the equipment necessary for initial operations on the lunar surface would require only 2-3 launches of the forthcoming SLS heavy lift launch vehicle.

The Orion spacecraft and its SLS launch vehicle are currently in final stages of development, with initial test flights planned for 2018. We can use these existing systems to return to the Moon; indeed, as the remnants of the cancelled Constellation program, they are already optimized for cislunar missions. The only missing piece is a lander to put people on to the lunar surface. NASA’s Altair lander program was cancelled in 2011, but fortunately, a lander may be ready very soon. The United Launch Alliance has outlined a plan for a human-rated lander based around the venerable Centaur stage, using modified RL-10 engines. This vehicle is almost perfectly configured to return people to the Moon, as it is intended to be reusable and utilizes the LOX-hydrogen propellant that we will produce on the lunar surface.

By re-focusing the agency toward the achievable and enabling, instead of the improbable, unrealistic and unattainable, we will be on the Moon developing a permanent, space-based transportation system that opens many possible destinations in space – and all doable within the agency’s existing (or slightly enhanced) budget.

We must return to a program template that knows how to distinguish reality from fantasy. And we must follow a path designed for space permanence, one that assures our nation’s leadership in space. This recovery will happen by a return to the Moon to learn how to use its resources. There we will add to our skill set and demonstrate what is possible – and create an atmosphere in which entrepreneurs can use that knowledge to build new space industries. Our space program requires clear direction, decisive leadership and competent technical implementation. We need for those who understand this – those willing to pursue these vital tasks – to speak up, engage and make our space program great again.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 39 Comments

Favorable Signs for a Lunar Return

New post up at Air & Space discusses events at the recent annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), including a report on Congressman Jim Bridenstine’s great speech to the attendees (which I urge you to read in its entirety).  Comment here, if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 30 Comments

The National Geographic Society’s “Mars” – Nova Fabula

Which version of the EDL of the human Mars spacecraft (Musk ITS at top; NGS Mars at bottom) is fact and which is fiction? Sorry, trick question – they are both fictional.

Which version of the EDL of the human Mars spacecraft (Musk ITS at top; NGS Mars at bottom) is fact and which is fiction? Sorry, trick question – they are both fictional.

For me, a child of the Sixties, the National Geographic Society (NGS, or “Society”) provided an amazing window into the wonderful world of discovery. Founded in 1888, the Society has produced an enormous catalogue of books, TV programs and movies. Nine months after its inception, the now iconic National Geographic monthly hit the stands. For well over one hundred years, in issue after issue, the publication with the familiar yellow square graphic has taken eager readers to far away places, exotic locales and alien worlds – making the unknown interesting and accessible through the Society’s magnificent photography and artwork. Occasionally, a fold out map detailing the feature story is tucked between its pages. The Society’s map of the Moon is one of the best available. While I knew National Geographic through years of enjoying its publications and programs, I remained unaware of the Society’s history of controversies. My knowledge about science and history (and its telling) is much broader today.

During its 128-year history, the Society has sponsored expeditions to remote corners of the globe, including Richard Peary’s 1909 attempt at the North Pole. When Dr. Frederick Cook announced in 1909 that he had attained the pole the previous year, the Society began a campaign of disparagement of Cook’s claim in favor of its own sponsored Peary expedition. Cook’s credibility had been previously questioned by the revelation of a member of his climbing team that his ascent of Mt. McKinley in 1906 had been fabricated. Thus, the NGS felt unassailable in their support of Peary’s claim that denied the priority of Cook’s claim. The campaign to give Peary credit for being first to reach the North Pole succeeded with an act of Congress that declared his claim valid (the vote was not unanimous). A re-examination of the published and unpublished evidence by arctic expert Wally Herbert in 1989 concluded that most likely, neither Peary nor Cook reached the pole. The NGS still supports Peary’s claim of priority.

The Society repeated this pattern of high profile, unquestioning support for their sponsored expeditions with Richard Byrd’s 1926 claim to have been the first person to fly over the North Pole. His claim was questioned, most notably by Bernt Balchen, the Norwegian polar aviator who later piloted Byrd’s aircraft on its first flight over the South Pole. Balchen was present at Byrd’s departure for the North Pole and had timed the length of the flight. On the basis of the known performance of the Fokker Tri-motor aircraft, Balchen concluded that Byrd must have turned around well short of the pole. Once again, the NGS stepped forward with a massive propaganda campaign to support Byrd’s claim.

This sort of no-holds-barred advocacy by the National Geographic Society’s isn’t some relic of bygone days either. For many years now, the NGS has promoted the idea of catastrophic climate change, most recently illustrated by the publication in their latest atlas of a blatantly incorrect map of the North Polar ice cap, a map where the Arctic basin appears to be mostly ice-free (the NGS understands well the maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words). In fact, satellite data show there has been little change in the extent of the polar cap since the publication of the Society’s 1971 map. Global, catastrophic, human-caused climate change is a politically correct, fashionable topic that has permeated all thinking and policy. The NGS has thrown its lot in with the sky-is-falling-and-we’re-all-doomed crowd. Everything has become politicized and science is no exception.

Which brings us to National Geographic’s current massive propaganda campaign, the Mars project. This combination documentary/drama is somewhat reminiscent of Walt Disney’s 1955 Tomorrowland television series about the conquest of space, which also introduced space visionary Wernher von Braun to the American public. Like its predecessor, Mars seeks to educate and enthuse the public in the belief that human missions to the Red Planet lie just around the corner. Toward that end, Mars is a pull-out-all-the-stops, Hollywood mega-production, featuring the talents of the renowned Director/Producer of the movie Apollo 13, Ron Howard.

This new series is officially set to premiere on November 17, 2016. However, Episode 1, Novo Mundo (The New World) is available for streaming on the web and the Society has created a massive, multi-page web site to promote the show. In addition to their dramatized version of a fictional first human mission to Mars, the series includes sound bites and interviews with numerous space experts proclaiming the imminence of the era of Mars flight. Needless to say, a variety of Mars advocates are heavily immersed and invested in the promotion of this show, including most notably NASA (whose own “Journey to Mars” remains as much in the realm of fiction as the NGS television series) and SpaceX’s CEO and “Chief Designer” Elon Musk, the architect of an “Interplanetary Transport System” that he envisions will enable mass human migration to Mars.

SpaceX and its various activities are showcased prominently in Mars with story-moving references and clips. So, not too unexpectedly, the spacecraft chosen for the Mars series bears a remarkable resemblance to the futuristic animated video of a SpaceX Interplanetary Crew Transport System that Elon Musk released during his recent, highly promoted International Astronautical Congress (IAC) speech. After a decelerating aerothermal entry into the martian atmosphere, the vehicle pitches around for a propulsive braking burn onto an upright, vertically precarious landing. From the discussion in the “documentary” portion of the first episode, including clips of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage landings, the casual viewer is left with the false impression that this “Entry-Descent-Landing” problem has been solved. This is far from the case. To date, landing on Mars has proven to be extremely problematic and more often than not, attempts have been unsuccessful.

Not shown in series’ intermingling of fact and fiction are the many outstanding problems and questions about a human mission to Mars. Interestingly, the opening episode doesn’t include the launch of mission pieces, the ship’s assembly and fueling in space, the departure of the Mars mission, nor are we given a window into their subsequent months of boredom and peril during the 6-9 month journey to Mars. That the crew risks exposure to several lifetime limits worth of radiation is alluded to, but nothing is revealed about how this hazard is to be addressed and mitigated. In the accompanying interviews and short films, the series’ producers note that the focus of the film is deliberately put on activities to be undertaken on Mars – on establishing a human foothold on the “Novo Mundo.” In the opening episode, the possible ill effects of radiation and solar UV exposure, toxic soil chemistry, and the numbing cold in the near-vacuum of the martian surface are lightly skipped over or set aside.

One of the more contrived aspects of the first episode is its depiction of the programmatic structure of the mission – the postulated creation of an “International Mars Science Foundation,” a politically correct, multi-cultural organization directed by a council of administrators and bureaucrats, convening at a round table (no doubt to indicate the universal equality of their status). A placard placed in front of each seated bureaucrat suggests that they represent the world’s space agencies (I saw JAXA on one of them). Presumably, either the world has banded together to finance this venture or Elon’s reusable spaceships have made Mars voyaging a trivial expenditure. Considering that none of the SpaceX Mars architecture pieces have gotten within 2000 miles of any launch site, this series is more Nova Fabula (new fable) than Novo Mundo.

In fact, this whole exercise is more akin to a worship service for the Mars faithful than it is a serious science and engineering documentary bent on sketching out a future for space travel. No identifiable rationale or motivation is given for this journey – more “on a hope and a prayer” than actual engineering and science. The short “Why Mars?” featurette on the NGS web site repeats the usual smorgasbord of platitudes – “because it’s there,” “human destiny,” “search for life” – but none of these reasons are unique to a human Mars mission. Why Mars and why “next” are two questions that go unanswered. It is simply assumed that viewers will agree with the premise of the producers (and the series’ contributing experts) that Mars is the “obvious” next destination in space, making those who believe differently unfashionably out of touch and probably “anti-science.”

This promoted fable – that Mars represents “humanity’s destiny” – takes a still very far-away vision, and through the use of spectacular imagery and propaganda, attempts to sell it to a public accustomed to instant gratification and thus programmed to “believe.” This suits many in positions of power. Hyping the romance of a human Mars mission keeps the public (not to mention a highly compliant and ignorant media) from asking tough questions of their leaders and their space agency: “How are you going to get to Mars?” “What will you do when you get there?” “Why this, to the exclusion of all else?” “Is there a more efficient way?” “What is the payback for those who will foot the bill?” Perhaps these questions will be addressed in future episodes, but somehow I doubt it.

Regardless of how the facts evolve and emerge over the next 20 years, since the National Geographic Society has chosen to sell the idea of a Novo Mundo, its sizable institutional resources will aggressively launch and sustain a multimedia campaign to promote this Novae Fabula. The fictional Mars mission portrayed here is said to occur in 2033 – that’s only 16 years away. Here’s my prediction for what will actually occur in 2033: the powers-that-be then will predict that a human mission to Mars will take place “within the next two decades.”

Posted in planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 19 Comments

Lost in Space or Thrown Away? – Revisiting the 2009 Augustine Committee Report

The 2009 Augustine Committee -- did Chiao let the cat out of the bag?

The 2009 Augustine Committee — did Chiao let the cat out of the bag?

Lost in Space 2016,” a public forum held recently in Houston at the Baker Institute of Rice University, was enlightening, although perhaps not in the sense the organizers intended. Seven space policy experts were invited to come and share their opinion of the state of America’s civil space program. During the panel discussion, one of the participants casually shared an insight that I believe has not been revealed previously.

Space writer Eric Berger, who attended the event, reported that former astronaut and member of the 2009 Augustine committee Leroy Chiao said the following:

“The Constellation program, frankly, had a lot of funding problems and some pretty serious technical problems. You know it probably was the right thing to do to cancel it. But it didn’t mean we should not go to the Moon. …. It came down to us on the committee to not talk too much about the Moon, because there was no way this administration was going to go there, because it was W’s program. OK, that’s a pretty stupid reason not to go to the Moon. I’m hopeful with this election cycle that maybe the Moon will be a possibility again.”

Leroy Chiao’s description of the Augustine committee deliberations is quite striking, so let us examine its various components.

The Constellation Program was how NASA chose to implement President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Indeed, Constellation had both funding and technical problems, but nothing that couldn’t have been resolved. There was the question about the announced schedule for lunar return, which the agency had claimed would include human missions to the Moon by 2020. In particular, I remember that the Augustine committee was concerned that the first missions to the lunar surface had slipped to the unimaginably distant date of 2025. The committee even suggested that an additional $3 billion per year would “fix” what was being described as an appalling schedule problem. Seven years on, such criticism of the program schedule is ironic, to say the least.

Most of the “serious technical problems” of Constellation were actually funding problems. The Ares I crew launch vehicle was experiencing a minor issue with thrust oscillation (and there were design objections to the whole idea of Ares I) but that, and other issues could well have been mitigated. Work had barely started on Orion and Altair – the command and lunar modules of the Constellation system, so their problems were almost entirely fiscal rather than technical. Options were presented to the Augustine committee (e.g., the presentation by NASA Johnson Space Center’s John Shannon and the Human Exploration Framework Team) that would have fixed the alleged problems of Constellation, and without an increase in yearly spending. These proposals were not simply refused – they were just flat ignored in the final report.

The attitude of the Augustine committee to the HEFT proposal to fix Constellation puzzled many of us who were involved in planning the original VSE. Given that the chosen path back to the Moon could have been modified to avoid or correct the real and perceived problems of Constellation, why cancel the whole effort instead of adopting the fixes? Now we know why – because “it came down” to the committee during deliberations not to discuss the benefits of going to the Moon. Chiao’s use of the phrase “came down” to describe the discussion environment, clearly indicates that the committee was instructed by those who commissioned it (the Obama administration) to not conclude that going to the Moon was valuable, nor was it to consider or advocate the offered technical fixes to the VSE lunar return architecture.

Supporters of the current direction would probably argue that even if all of these statements are true, the bulk of the Augustine report is solid and that both its technical analysis and recommendations are impeccable. In fact, Chiao’s comments prove the exact opposite. His statement that during the committee’s deliberations, “it came down” to not “talk too much” about the Moon, discloses that the committee’s conclusions were pre-ordained. Left unsaid are such pertinent facts as the Who and the How represented in this directive, but clearly, as members of the committee felt compelled to obey it (even possibly against their better judgment), such direction must have had considerable administrative weight.

If the Moon was a priori taken off the table, then the report is not the objective technical analysis claimed by its sponsors, but rather a blatantly political document designed to justify in retrospect a decision undertaken entirely for political reasons. This decision continues to cause great turmoil – the loss of a national capability and the predictable costs to the civil space program that comes from a crippling disruption. Significantly, the retirement of the Space Shuttle program (a key milestone of the VSE) proceeded apace, leaving the nation with no national means to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Chiao shared with “Lost in Space 2016” that cancelling lunar return because it was “W’s program” (i.e., an idea conceived and advocated by the previous administration) is a “pretty stupid reason not to go to the Moon.” People have all kinds of reasons to not want to go to the Moon, but politics is now and always has been part of the equation in considerations of national space policy. Some segments of both political parties have always had a problem with the human spaceflight program, believing that it is federal money poorly spent. They would rather spread that money around to their political supporters through various alternative programs. So I am not surprised by this rationale.

However, it’s not clear to me that either of the current candidates for President are inclined to re-instate lunar return as a goal for America’s civil space program, nor is it clear that they favor the current Program of Record. Human spaceflight simply is not a political issue in this Presidential election, just as it has never been an issue in Presidential elections. (Arguably, the debate about the alleged “missile gap” in the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960 was about space, but that occurred before human spaceflight existed and was in reality a debate about our national defense posture. Moreover, as a campaign issue, it was completely bogus – the Eisenhower administration knew that there wasn’t a “missile gap” but decided to say nothing so as not to give away our national intelligence gathering capabilities.)

Chiao’s disclosure does raise a significant issue about the “expert” advice sought and given on national scientific and technical issues. There is a tendency (or is it a hope?) in the media and the public to believe that the pronouncement of technical experts on questions of import should be accepted at face value because, after all, “these people know of what they speak.” Chiao’s revelation puts the lie to such wholesome ideals. Commissions and studies, and panels of experts can only answer the questions they are asked, and sometimes these questions are framed in a way to project what answers are expected in response. Of course, even when these committees deal with alternatives in a straightforward manner, their conclusions can always be torqued in desired directions. One might reflect on these facts in regard to other “scientific” advice the federal government solicits and receives on a variety of scientific and technical topics of public interest, such as energy policy and climate change.

Although I can’t describe this revelation as gratifying because of the damage it’s caused, it is good to see a member of the Augustine committee confirm what many of us in the space community had long suspected, but could not prove – that the decision to terminate NASA’s human lunar return was not driven by technical or programmatic considerations, but rather by base and petulant political calculation and desire. It is unfortunate that it took so long for a member of the Augustine committee to publicly share this information. This knowledge would have been valuable to those members of Congress who were trying to save the VSE in the critical budget years of 2010 and 2011. If these facts had come to light then, we might have had a more positive resolution of the conflict. Now, as some of us predicted at the time, our human spaceflight program has been decimated and we are left with NASA’s Potemkin Village-like “#JourneytoMars” and the science-fiction fantasies of Elon Musk.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 47 Comments

Book Review Roundup

Run -- don't walk -- to your nearest bookstore!

Run — don’t walk — to your nearest bookstore!

It’s now been five months since my book The Value of the Moon was published and I am happy to report that it has been well received.  Let us hope that more people see the value of lunar return and the development of cislunar space as time goes on.

Here is a very complimentary review post recently published by a blogger named “sagansense”:

I just finished ‘The Value of the Moon’ by geologist/lunar scientist Dr. Paul D. Spudis, and I implore you – yes you – to read this cover to cover, as it illuminates the past 50+ year debacle that is the American space program; notably, the human spaceflight sector, and why the Moon – not Mars – is the logical choice for humankind to gain a foothold to the rest of the solar system.

I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Other reviews and mentions on-line:

Dave Eicher in Astronomy magazine.  Thanks, Dave for your very nice review — it was the first one published!

Frank Morring in Aviation Week and Space Technology.

Dennis Wingo at his blog.

Astronaut Tom Jones in Aerospace America.

A discussion of the book with Bruce Dorminey of Forbes magazine.

Jeff Foust at The Space Review.

An interview with me about the book at

A summary/rating of the book from the “Get Abstract” web site.

Author interview at

A recent appearance on The Space Show, discussing the book with David Livingston.

Three radio appearances on NPR, from various stations around the country:

Houston Public Radio

Jefferson Public Radio (northern California)

The Joy Cardin Show on Wisconsin Public Radio

One final (related, but non-book) note:  Tony Lavoie and I recently presented a revised version of our lunar return architecture at the AIAA Space 2016 annual meeting, held this year in Long Beach CA.  Click HERE to read the paper.

Posted in China space program, Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 26 Comments

Lowering the Cost of Human Spaceflight

Three approaches, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.  My new post up at Air&Space, for your consideration.  Comment here, if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation, Uncategorized | 45 Comments

Not Vaunted, Not Clever and Not Working – The State of America’s Space Program

Only 7 years away -- book your passage now!

Only 7 years away — book your passage now!

Recent events have focused our attention yet again on the gap between promises made and the reality of our national civil space program’s performance. It’s easy to see, if one cares to look at the big picture, that while our space effort is slowly sputtering to a halt, many steadfastly hold to an unsustainable, unworkable program. So convinced are they that this stark reality, though patently true and verifiable, isn’t staring them in the face, that they ignore the obvious gaps, or worse, dismiss them out of hand and work against a knowable course correction that could fix the problem.

In September 1962, then-President John F. Kennedy gave a stirring speech at Rice University in Houston.  In it, he called for (and outlined) the need for a national determination to put a man on the Moon. Clips of his speech are often re-played, as it is thought to epitomize the spirit of the Apollo program. Indeed, there was a national “spirit” and “right stuff” in that distant era – one not concerned with the Moon or with space per se, but rather, driven by the desire to defeat the Soviet Union’s goal of conquest here on Earth, by winning a technology race in space. A comparable zeitgeist does not now exist.

This week, Dava Newman, the Deputy Administrator of NASA, will also appear at Rice University. While reading the description of Newman’s forthcoming appearance, I was struck by how much of what is asserted in the text is simply untrue. There is no “Journey to Mars” except in the minds of some agency bureaucrats. The supposed three-stages of the “Journey” – low Earth orbit (LEO), the cislunar “proving ground,” and traveling to Mars – hypes new technology and capability development, exemplified by the existing LEO phase featuring missions to the International Space Station (ISS); missions currently gathering data on long-term spaceflight, particularly in terms of deconditioning of the human body. But the time required for a round-trip to Mars will not be simulated; the recent “Year in Space” by astronaut Scott Kelly covers roughly only a third of the expected total duration of a human Mars mission.

Along with important questions remaining about how people will survive long-duration missions in space, there also is a lack of knowledge and experience in long-lived, reliable operating systems (as evidenced by continual breakdowns of equipment on ISS). Some problems are fixable (and fixed) by its occupants, but the more serious ones require parts and re-supply from Earth, an option not available to those on their way to Mars. If a system cannot be fixed en route, or if the parts needed for a fix are not onboard, the crew is left without options. Don’t expect them to turn around and come home in a heroic “Apollo 13”-type scenario, as an abort-and-return mission would likely involve weeks to months, putting crew survival in grave jeopardy.

NASA claims to be developing spaceflight to Mars in which “explorers will be practically independent of spaceship Earth.” In fact, they are pursuing exactly the opposite architectural approach. All pieces – equipment and supplies – of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” are to be launched from Earth. NASA states that the forthcoming Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket will enable and provision this journey. What they do not make clear is that even as large as this SLS rocket will be, multiple launches will be required to conduct a single human Mars mission (at least 8 and possibly as many as 12). This orbiting hardware is then assembled in space into a spacecraft before departing for Mars (launch windows occurring only every 26 months). To assemble and fly such a massive, complex (and as yet not fully understood) space system is a non-trivial problem for whatever entity attempts it.

Some say NASA needs to get out of the space transportation and launch business and buy commercial, but what of these “New Space” promoters, those intrepid entrepreneurs and capitalists boldly pioneering business in space? Here too, there is less than meets the eye. It’s been almost 12 years since SpaceShipOne flew twice to the edge of space and won the coveted Ansari X-Prize for flying the first repeatable, private spaceflight. And though we hear a lot about “space tourism,” the only paying customers flown into space to date got there aboard a Russian Soyuz. It was said at the time (and continues to be believed in many quarters) that prizes are the incentive needed to get the ball rolling – by seeking a monetary trophy and garnering technical acumen and business credibility, a torrent of innovation and industry activity will bring a new era of low cost, personal spaceflight. Yet, here we sit, still dreaming of that golden age.

Despite battling these business profile headwinds and entrepreneurial wind sheer, the salesmanship of New Space continues apace, with all of its variety and ferocity. The public is inundated with articles describing what the New Space sector will achieve in the next few months-to-years – promised future breakthroughs that are greatly outstripped by endless promotional hype. There are no hotels for space tourists on orbit and no way to get any inhabitants there if there were. The Google Lunar X-Prize has had its deadline extended three times (currently to the end of 2017), but no launch date for a first attempt to win the prize has been set. Some promising New Space companies have had significant layoffs (possibly as prelude to going out of business) or have suffered devastating technical setbacks.

Which brings us to Space Exploration Technologies Corporation – SpaceX, billed as the company endowed with the vision, drive and capability required to lead humanity to its second home in the universe – Mars. Yet, as with most New Space claims, what has been promised is much greater than what has been delivered. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch system suffered another setback this week when their vehicle and payload exploded on the pad. Accidents happen (and have happened) to the best of those who work in the business of space, and each time these accidents (and subsequent investigations) happen, we are reminded why leaving Earth isn’t routine – because it’s hard and expensive.

Much of the accomplishment of SpaceX is incremental rather than transformational. The development of a flyback booster receives endless press coverage, but to date, none of the company’s used stages have re-flown. Billed as lowering costs (and building clientele), reusability is marketed as a breakthrough approach to affordable space access from Earth (though SES, based in Luxembourg, may want to reconsider their announcement about being the first to fly a payload on a used Falcon 9 first stage after this week’s accident). By SpaceX’s own estimates, if recovery of booster stages becomes workable as a complete end-to-end system, they envision a reduction of “up to 30%” in the price of launch. (That “up to” is always significant in public pronouncements – usually, it can be translated as “a lot less.”) Another SpaceX innovation is the use of super-cooled propellant (“slush liquid oxygen”) to boost performance. It does, but only at about the 8% level. It is not clear whether either of these innovations will revolutionize space access through a reduction in cost or an increase in performance, and of course, at what cost to reliability.

What is clear is, to gain the lion’s share of the market, it’s vital to have and keep positive media attention focused on your business by heralding the most insignificant of events (or plans for future events) in order to drive business your way and squeeze out your competition. An example is the unveiling of the manned Dragon 2 spacecraft in 2014 (which was a mock-up, not a piece of flight hardware). This event was carried live on streaming video – passionately and professionally praised in a wide variety of media. Yet we have heard little about it since. Instead, we get reliably favorable news stories about forthcoming SpaceX PR events – next up is Musk’s presentation this month (at the International Astronautical Congress being held in Mexico) about his just-around-the-corner plans for a human colony on Mars. One story promotes Musk’s corporate claim that the first flights for this milestone in human history will occur in the year 2024 (this from a company that has yet to announce the date of its first manned mission to LEO).  Simultaneously, we also have NASA’s “Journey to Mars” being advanced by the media.

Ordinarily, ludicrous and ridiculous public claims are mercilessly disassembled and destroyed by that watchdog of freedom – the American press.  So we need to ask, has the media bungled their job when questioning the viability of SpaceX and Musk’s promotional strategy with breathless, softball coverage of virtually anything they announce? Like the fictional FBI agent Fox Mulder on the TV show “The X-Files,” New Space fans “want to believe” – and apparently, many reporters in the space media are fans. “We love SpaceX,” begins the honest headline of a recent story by Eric Berger of Ars Technica, who then wisely advises Elon Musk to focus on the near-term and the achievable in space, and to cut back on the hype and the grab for glory.

That does not appear to be a good marketing strategy though, because fortune and fame hinge on continually selling the dream of space. And in that sense, SpaceX fits perfectly with the mindset of their governmental predecessor and current business partner, NASA. Both remain bound to a similar blueprint of promoting a distant dream (humans on Mars) rather than doing what is necessary in our national interests (“not because it is easy but because it is hard”) – the work required to build and perfect real systems (reliable flight hardware to LEO and cislunar space) that will allow us to achieve a permanent foothold off planet, while maintaining and challenging our important technology sector. They are also alike in their apparent disinterest in pursing a return to the Moon – a place both known and reachable – where building a true Earth-independent architecture through the use of lunar material and energy resources, holds the promise of giving us affordable and routine access to space beyond LEO.

So, regardless of the details Elon Musk announces in Mexico later this month or Dava Newman’s comments on NASA’s “Journey to Mars” next week at Rice University, color me dutifully skeptical.

Posted in Lunar development, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 81 Comments

Virtues of the 90-Day Study

Overblown? The 90-Day study, in a nutshell.

Overblown? The 90-Day study, in a nutshell.

Broach the topic of the “90-Day Study” with almost any random person involved with space for more than 25 years and you’re likely to provoke a reaction akin to showing Dracula a crucifix. This document is now offered as a cautionary tale about what flows from a devastating report – a bloated, impenetrable disaster of transcendent magnitude that doomed President George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative, the 1989 attempt to fashion a set of long-range strategic goals for America’s civil space program. Released to near universal disdain and condemnation, its dread name lives in infamy in space history circles.

To understand what is behind all this opprobrium, I’ll begin by describing the historical circumstances under which this report was written, followed by the reasons it took the form that it did and what truth, if any, lies in the rather overblown reaction to it described above.

Twenty years after our space program’s peak during the Apollo effort, and despite President Reagan’s initiation of the Space Station Freedom project in 1984, our space program was under fire. The tragic loss in January 1986 of the Space Shuttle Challenger with her crew of seven led to critical reappraisals of the nation’s human spaceflight program. The fact that the accident seemed to result from hubris and incompetence only increased the volume of criticism. In time-honored Washington fashion, it was thought that a committee of experts should examine our space program and recommend a long-range direction. As it turned out, such a group was finalizing its report and mere months from issuing their results. The National Commission on Space (a.k.a. the Paine Commission) report (May 1986) was a grand vision of orbiting space cities, lunar and martian bases, and human expansion into the Solar System. Its unfortunate timing – along with its marked science-fiction flavor – led it to be largely ignored by policy makers in government.

However, the Paine Commission was not the only group working to devise a new direction for space. Several parallel efforts to plot a future course for NASA were also underway, both within and outside the agency. Since the early 1980s, a movement to examine the potential benefits of a return to the Moon had been studied by a group at the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. Simultaneously, another effort was studying human missions to Mars (there had been no missions of any kind to Mars since the Viking explorations of the mid-1970s). These two streams converged within the agency in the Office of Exploration, which conducted paper studies on how to advance human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit. An internal NASA group chaired by astronaut Sally Ride released a report to the administrator in 1987 that outlined the possible benefits and approaches for a variety of these initiatives, including human missions to the Moon and Mars. This report and the variety of work being done by NASA and others outside the agency provided the backdrop for a Presidential decision.

On July 20, 1989, the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon by Apollo 11, President George H.W. Bush gave a speech at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington that called for a return of people to the Moon – “this time to stay” – to be followed by a human mission to Mars. This policy proposal was dubbed the Human Exploration Initiative (HEI, later changed to “Space Exploration Initiative,” or SEI). The SEI included both robotic and human missions designed to extend human reach beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). SEI was largely the brainchild of the revived National Space Council, a White House-level policy group reporting to Vice-President Dan Quayle. Both Quayle and the Council were strong advocates of revitalizing the space program with a challenging set of goals. NASA was directed to produce a report within 90 days – a report that was to outline possible mission architectures and identify the technologies needed to accomplish those goals. The report effort was centered at JSC largely because that center’s Exploration Program Office had done the most detailed initial analyses of the problem. JSC Center Director Aaron Cohen was in charge of the study, with day-to-day operations headed up by engineer Mark Craig.

This intensive study effort took place during the months of August-October 1989, with the report issued late in November of that year. Upon its briefing and release to the National Space Council, the brickbats and invective began: unimaginative, bloated and “Battlestar Galactica approach” were just some of the descriptors attached to the report. Historical legend holds that because the report was so awful, the Space Council immediately engaged with a group at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to devise and offer a counter-strategy – the “Great Explorations” scheme of Lowell Wood that used inflatable spacecraft and was rumored to cost less than one-tenth the amount of money estimated for the heavily panned 90-Day Study approach.

So just what did the 90-Day Study advocate? In brief, it described the vehicles and technologies needed to undertake human lunar and martian missions. It assumed the continued operation of the Space Shuttle, with new missions beyond LEO staged from Space Station Freedom (currently, the International Space Station). The new vehicles necessary for trans-LEO missions were outlined and described, including a Shuttle-derived heavy lift vehicle and a reusable cislunar transfer stage to send payloads to the Moon (using an aerobrake for Earth return). It also called for research on a nuclear powered Mars transfer stage and nuclear reactors for surface power systems on both the Moon and Mars. Extensive robotic precursor missions were outlined, including global surveys from orbit for the Moon and Mars, geophysical networks for the martian surface, a robotic sample return from Mars to certify the planet safe for human landings, and deployment of an infrastructure of communications satellites in martian orbit.

This list of assets was comprehensive, and yes, expensive. However, what was being described was nothing less than a permanent human foothold off-Earth. Moreover, this system of space assets and transportation infrastructure would be acquired and placed into operation over the coming three decades. The Space Council was disappointed that cheaper options were not presented, but it isn’t clear that had been part of the mandate for the study that the Council ordered from NASA. In contrast to claims that no architectural options were presented, five “Reference Approaches” were described that varied the phasing and dates of initial operational capability for the lunar base and Mars mission. In this regard, the biggest criticism of the report is that it took President Bush’s SEI speech as its policy guidance – “back to the Moon to stay and then to Mars.” This seems a strange criticism of a report – that it followed a directive given by the President.

Knowing how the 90-Day Report came about and how it was received, what is so objectionable about the report? As I read it, it outlined a step-wise, incremental approach to conducting lunar and martian missions, whereby existing assets are incorporated – employing continuity of purpose to build sustainability – and not discarded. Shuttle and Station would both support the missions beyond LEO and become integral parts of the spaceflight system. I contend that the architectural framework laid out in the 90-Day Study is exactly how we should approach going to the Moon and conducting missions to Mars. The report was criticized on the one hand for being “old school” and unimaginative in its use of proven technology, but then simultaneously criticized as taking too much risk in its advocacy of some advanced technologies, such as nuclear thermal propulsion and aerobraking into martian orbit.

So which is it – too Buck Rogers or too stodgy?

I can agree with the criticism that the architectural details of the report contained a lot of featherbedding by various widget-makers throughout the agency, but there was nothing in it that a good scrub by some hard-nosed systems engineers could not have fixed. Yes, it was Christmas-treed, but by looking past those superfluous (and expected) tinsel-hanging efforts, one sees good roots and branches beneath. The basic approach harkened back to the original von Braun architecture – shuttle, station, Moon tug, Mars spacecraft, a stepwise, incremental, cumulative progression to ever-farther regions of the Solar System. In contrast to some opinions, the technical approach laid out in the 90-Day Study was the very antithesis of the Apollo approach – the “all-up”, single-shot, self-contained missions to dash somewhere, plant a flag, and return, only to learn that your program’s been cancelled the day after your ticker-tape parade.

The cost numbers associated with the plan outlined by the 90-Day Study are subject to much confusion. The report itself contains no cost numbers whatsoever, the decision having been to include the estimates in a separate document, presumably on the fear that they would be misinterpreted (which happened). The numbers came from two different cost estimation models (then in use by JSC and NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville) and ran to about $470 to $540 billion (FY1990 dollars), over a 30-year period of execution. These numbers included a 55% reserve for unexpected difficulties or accidents. While such budget numbers are substantial (the agency budget in those years was about $15 billion/year), spending such sums on NASA would still not have exceeded about 1.5% of the federal budget – this at a time when massive cuts in defense spending associated with the alleged “peace dividend” produced by the end of the Cold War were looming. Such a sum of money would have been about the same amount spent by the Department of Energy during this 30-year period. The idea that we “could not afford it” is simply ludicrous, especially as one motivation for devising the SEI in the first place was to partly maintain the industrial-technical infrastructure used to defeat the Soviet Union.

In the historical telling, the story goes that upon receipt of the 90-Day Study, the Space Council was so aghast that it sent the report to the National Research Council (NRC) for evaluation (and presumably, dissection). If the thought was that the NRC would trash it, such hope was misplaced. The NRC evaluation, while not uncritical of some details, largely acknowledges that the 90-Day Study offered a reasonable, relatively low risk approach to carry out the Presidential mandate. The White House then set up an “outreach” program, asking for the best technological ideas from many sources in order to show just how off-base the 90-Day Study was. A special group was gathered to evaluate these ideas – the “Synthesis Group” led by astronaut Tom Stafford (of which I was a member). After a year of synthesis and analysis, the group issued its findings: there are no “magic beans” technologies. To carry out the President’s Moon-Mars initiative, heavy lift vehicles, nuclear propulsion, extensive robotic precursor missions and many other items found on the checklist of the “overblown” 90-Day Study, were needed.

What about Livermore’s “Great Explorations” idea? The use of inflatable vehicles for human spaceflight doesn’t actually solve the fundamental problem of trans-LEO missions: most of the mass of the vehicle on departure consists of propellant, not habitats or transit vehicles. Moreover, inflatables have their own technical issues. Interior supporting structures are complex mechanisms and potential fail-points during deployment in space. The real problem solved by inflatable spacecraft is not mass, but payload volume – in the 1990s, large diameter modules could not fit on existing expendable launch vehicles or inside the payload bay of the Shuttle. Supposedly, by using inflatables, we would avoid the huge expense of developing a new heavy lift vehicle. But even this criticism is not valid, in that development of the unmanned Shuttle side mount launch vehicle would have solved this problem at relatively low cost (most of the then-existing infrastructure could be used), as well as providing a way to get massive pieces into orbit in single chunks.

So now, 25 years after the release of the “disastrous” 90-Day Study, and in light of current events, this study deserves another look. It is not a perfect document, containing some superfluous elements and questionable cost estimates, but its basic architecture uses exactly the type of incremental, stepwise, cumulative approach we need (and more and more are calling for) if we are ever to build a sustainable deep space transportation system. One final aspect of the report is notable: the 90-Day Study was the first agency architecture to incorporate resource utilization (ISRU) – specifically, the production of oxygen from lunar regolith (oxygen is 4/5 of the mass of the total propellant load in a LOX-hydrogen system). This resource utilization aspect of the 90-Day plan was incorporated prior to any knowledge of the existence of lunar polar ice (a game changer that would have been soon discovered anyway from the robotic precursor missions planned as part of the SEI). So once again, the 90-Day Study is, in many ways, well in advance of current plans.

I urge you to read the 90-Day Report and judge its merits and faults for yourself. It’s tragic that so much written about it inaccurately describes its content, or at a minimum, fails to provide any historical context for why the report advocated certain approaches. It is remembered as a despised, failed report, rejected by those who requested it and to this day, misunderstood through ignorance of the facts. It contained the bad news (and nobody likes to receive that) that there are no magic beans to climb to the stars – it will require a variety of complex, difficult and (yes) expensive pieces to establish the spacefaring system that we need. Inflatable spacecraft were the magic beans of the 1990’s space program – today’s space program has its own version of them. The cold hard realities of human spaceflight cannot be denied and the truth of that always comes out in the end.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 32 Comments

China continues its Long March to the Moon

Soon to be joined by another nation's flag? Happy July 4th!

Soon to be joined by another nation’s flag? Happy July 4th!

I have a new post up at Air & Space discussing some recent developments in the Chinese space program and what they might mean.  Comment here if you are so moved.

FYI, below are some of my previous posts on the Chinese space program in general and their lunar efforts in particular:



A&S Jan 2012        China’s Long March to the Moon

A&S June 2012      China and the Moon

SLR June 2013      China in Space: A Threat or Not?

SLR Nov 5, 2013    China, America and the Moon: Boldness and Abdication

SLR Nov 30, 2013  China in Space

SLR March 2014    Surrendering in Space

SLR April 2014       International Repercussions [Part 2] The Power Vacuum

SLR Sept 2014       American Space Program Reflects Standing in the World

A&S Nov 6, 2014    China is Now Positioned to Dominate the Moon

A&S May 2015        China and the “Dark Side”

Posted in China space program, Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 6 Comments

Delusions of a Mars Colonist

Abracadabra! We turn Mars into a second Earth (National Geographic Society)

Abracadabra! We turn Mars into a second Earth (National Geographic Society)

A perennial talking point promoted by the space media is the belief that to save humanity, we must make a beeline to Mars. Supposedly, Mars is so “Earth-like” that it is the natural second home for humanity in space, a place to assure species survival in the event of some planetary catastrophe (such as a large meteorite impact). Because Mars could be “terraformed” to become even more Earth-like, we must focus our principal space efforts on undertaking human missions to Mars – ASAP (for the last 45 years).

For any sustainable human presence off-Earth to be successful, one must develop the means to arrive, survive and thrive. Most commentary on human Mars missions has focused entirely on the requirement to arrive because many of the technical problems associated with this must-accomplish first task remain unresolved. Presently, we don’t know how to build fault-tolerant, in-space serviceable systems necessary to support human life over the course of a multiple-year-long Mars mission. Protecting the crew from exposure to constant high-energy cosmic rays and sporadic solar particle events requires some means of shielding the vehicle – a daunting prospect in terms of mass and power. The means of a safe entry, descent and landing of a spacecraft (having mass of tens-of-tones) onto the martian surface must be developed, as these are currently completely unknown “details.” And if it the trip is to be more than one-way, then provisioning, refueling and launching for the return home must be sorted out too. These issues must be resolved before a crewed mission to Mars can take place.

For the moment, I’ll ignore these non-trivial “arrival” issues and focus instead on the two remaining objectives – “survive and thrive.” Only rudimentary attention has been given to how humans will survive on the martian surface. Certainly, additional problems will come up that we cannot know now, but the ones we do understand are formidable enough. In contrast to the press it receives, the martian surface is a cold, alien, hostile environment – much more dangerous than free space or even, in some respects, the lunar surface. Although Mars does have an atmosphere, it is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide and has less than one-hundredth the surface pressure of Earth. While this thin atmosphere protects the surface from the smallest micrometeoroids, it does not shield it from the highest energy cosmic rays or solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In addition, because Mars has no global magnetic field (and we cannot create one), galactic cosmic rays will always shower the surface, making underground dwellings a must – not in transparent domed cities on the surface, as portrayed in science fiction novels and films.

Like the Moon, the surface of Mars is covered with a fine dust, but unlike lunar soil, martian dust is chemically reactive – a toxic mix of perchlorates and peroxides that, combined with the high flux of solar UV and galactic cosmic rays to which the surface is exposed, makes for an almost completely sterilizing environment. The Viking landers flown 50 years ago could not find any organic matter (i.e., compounds made of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen) in martian soil in any concentration at the parts-per-billion sensitivity level. The scenes in the recent film The Martian (held up by NASA as a model of scientific veracity and prediction) in which the astronaut fertilizes the martian soil and grows potatoes, is complete fantasy – we simply do not know how to alter the soil chemistry of Mars, fertilize it with organic matter, and then grow radiation-tolerant plants quickly enough to support a human community, let alone a single astronaut.

Water is thought to be present on Mars, so clearly supplying water would be no problem. Or would it? The upper surface of Mars is covered by rock and dust, but ground ice is present in many locations at depths between a few meters to several tens of meters. Subsurface ice could be reached by drilling or by setting off an explosive charge. Martian water is likely to be saline, which will necessitate its distillation for human consumption or agriculture, requiring more electrical power and adding complexity to surface systems.

Human communities need energy to do almost anything and energy production on Mars is a significant issue. Mars is farther from the Sun than the Earth is, so solar panels will generate only about half the energy (so at least twice the collection area will be needed). Because there are frequent dust storms on Mars, solar panels will require regular cleaning to assure peak power production; such a task is challenging for very large areas (thousands of square meters) of solar arrays. The gravity of Mars (0.38 of Earth) is more than twice that of the Moon (0.16 of Earth) and landing large masses of supplies and infrastructure on Mars is difficult. Perhaps solar arrays can be manufactured from local materials on the martian surface but as we do not know the surface chemical composition of different localities in detail, we do not know how difficult this might be. The obvious solution to these difficulties in energy production is to deploy a nuclear fission reactor; the problem is that no reactor of suitable size for use in space exists.

So aside from the inconvenient facts that we don’t know how to safely make the voyage, how to land on the planet, what the detailed chemistry of the soil is, or if we can access potable water, whether we can then grow food locally, or how to build habitats to shield us from the numbing cold and hostile surface environment, don’t know what protection is needed due to the toxic soil chemistry, or how to generate enough electrical power to build and operate an outpost or settlement – in spite of these annoying details that make this idea prohibitive, the creation of a Mars colony within a decade is marketed to the public as if the plans had already been drawn up.

But let us say for the sake of argument that we have addressed the first two tasks adequately – we have arrived and survived. How do we “thrive” on Mars? Of all the notions promulgated in the media about future Mars colonization, this last element is the one that is always ignored. With flashy artwork depicting futuristic cities, sleek flying cars, and lush green fields resplendent under transparent crystal domes (in startling contrast to the red-hued surrounding desert of the martian surface) it is simply assumed that a human colony on Mars will evolve into some kind of off-Earth utopia.

But how will these future Mars inhabitants make a living? And by that, I mean what product or service will they offer that anybody on Earth will want? If you think that the answer is autarky (complete economic isolation and self-sufficiency), then you are imagining an economy (and likely, a political state) in which North Korea is a free market, pluralistic paradise by comparison. People who migrate to Mars need more than food and shelter – they will need imports from Earth, material and intellectual products designed to enrich and refine life on the frontier. What will they have of value to trade or to sell for these imports?

We do not know if Mars contains anything that would have economic value on Earth. Mars has had a complex geological evolution, so we might expect the formation of ore deposits, possibly of substantial value. But even if this is true, we have no idea where these deposits occur or if they are accessible for mining and refining. Martian products must be of sufficient worth so as to merit their transportation back to terrestrial markets, which would require their launch out of the substantial Mars gravity well and back into the even greater gravity well of the Earth. Much is made of the possible economic value of “information,” but it is not clear that Mars is particularly rich in factual data marketable to those back on Earth, although a martian pioneer might have desperate need of it – which would make them their own “customers” and exacerbate the economic disparity of the colony to an even greater degree.

Colonies are not founded in some far-off land because they “look cool” or because some plutocrat wants to retire there. They are established primarily for two reasons: power projection and/or wealth creation. Small, barren islands or isolated localities might not offer much in the way of wealth, but their strategic value might be immense (e.g., Gibraltar). On the other hand, the New World was often more trouble than profit to most European states in the immediate aftermath of Columbus’ discovery. But once the gold and silver started flowing, colonists soon followed and pursued profitable and sustainable endeavors once they arrived and survived. The idea of a sustainable space settlement requires the creation of some kind of market – either economic or strategic – for whatever they find or produce there. Such might be achievable in free space (e.g., the generation and sale of space solar power) or on the Moon (e.g., the production of water to fuel a permanent space transportation system). Mars is too far away and relatively inaccessible to serve strategic ends, and an economic driver has not been identified – other than reality TV to observe any surviving arrivals as if they were zoo creatures (“Mars Survivor!” Who gets voted out of the airlock this week?).

Of all the “thrive” concepts yet advanced for space settlements, the idea of “terraforming” Mars (i.e., making the martian surface conditions like those of the Earth) is the most unbelievable. In essence, this is a proposal to manufacture an Earth-like environment on a planetary scale – a technical task we can barely manage within the confines of a single, small spacecraft. Yet some blithely speak of altering a planet’s atmosphere, hydrosphere and crust to make a “second Eden” where humans can roam free and settle widely. The unknowns involved in such an undertaking are not simply monumental, they are literally inestimable – to borrow a phrase, “we don’t know what we don’t know.” We are still uncertain about all of the factors that control and influence Earth’s climate and habitability, let alone know enough to manipulate the evolution of an alien planet toward some desired end. Spurring imaginations, this fantasy future is always depicted in beautiful artwork, where colonists inhabiting the ancient, parched red planet, see a world gradually being overtaken by shades of blue and green. We just need to go! This is science fiction indeed.

This new delusion – Mars as the New World – illustrates better than almost anything else the anemic state of the American space program. This debilitating condition allows for patent nonsense to be seriously peddled to a credulous, compliant and negligent media who will eagerly print virtually any headline or story.   The space community needs to rethink how they communicate the truth about our space future to the public (and to future engineers and scientists) if they seriously plan to go anywhere in the future.

Posted in Lunar development, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 34 Comments