Viewers of the David Letterman Show (before it went to pot) probably remember a running gag where people would bring their pets to perform a variety of silly or dumb acts for the amusement of the audience. Letterman called this segment “Stupid Pet Tricks.” Although each particular trick was silly, the pet owners sincerely believed that their pets were gifted and were proud to showcase their animals’ various abilities. In fact, the whole exercise allowed the host and audience to smirk knowingly at the owners’ pride in their pets’ seemingly “human” abilities. This bit of low comedy has now been adapted as the central principle of our federal civil space program. The object now seems to be who can come up with the silliest idea for a human spaceflight mission. And boy, is the competition for that title fierce!
Of course, we all know already about Contestant Number 1, the “haul a rock to lunar orbit and visit it” entry. Called the “Asteroid Retrieval Mission” by NASA (I prefer to think of it as the “Haul Asteroid Mission“), this concept seeks to conceal the potential embarrassment of developing a new deep space transportation system (the Orion spacecraft) and having no approved place to send it via the expedient of creating one. Of course, the Object-That-Cannot-Be-Named is involved in this “high-concept” idea; it acts as a convenient gravity well, around which this purloined boulder will be placed in orbit. Following this feat of legerdemain, the Orion crew will rendezvous with it and station-keep – the term “landing” is not appropriate in this case, as the object has no appreciable gravity field and a visit is more akin to formation flying than to landing.
Exactly what the crew will do there is yet to be defined. There is a vague sense that perhaps sampling the asteroid and returning pieces back to the Earth might be valuable. Sounds great – those few kilograms can be added to the thousands of metric tons of material from near-Earth asteroids that we already posses here on Earth in the form of meteorites. What’s that? You say that an “unmodified” sample of asteroid might be a “first?” Well, we’ll know if that’s true by the time this mission flies – the robotic OSIRIS-REx mission will be returning samples from an asteroid just around the same time.
The arguments of some of the advocates of the ARM can be amusing. A recent claim that perhaps the astronauts would “extract some water or platinum” is interesting; I suppose that the details are left as an exercise for the student. Perhaps that student could explore the details of the Orion spacecraft, which contain no facilities for resource processing, particularly using a feedstock about which we know nothing. Of course, we wouldn’t want to simply “duplicate our achievements of 40-plus years ago.” This is, after all, an all-new, improved space program. Rather than land on an alien world and explore the complex processes that created and shaped our planetary system, we will now boldly snuggle up to a rock in free space and do – something. Anything we did not do “40-plus years ago” is billed as progress.
The fact is, scientifically, the ARM offers next to nothing. We already have samples of asteroids (we call them meteorites) in great quantity. We will learn nothing about the rock’s internal structure that isn’t already known from previous robotic missions to other similar bodies. It does nothing in the way of helping us learn the skills needed for asteroid collision mitigation, as extinction-sized asteroids are not amenable to being towed by a solar electric tug, no matter how efficient it may be. The more one looks into the ARM, the more patently absurd the whole concept appears. But it is “someplace to go” and it is not a mission to the Object-That-Cannot-Be-Named, so that qualifies it as a high-value target in today’s space agency.
The claim is made that the ARM “prepares us for journeys to Mars,” the so-called “ultimate destination.” Calling that hand and raising the table limit is an alternative idea, Contestant Number 2 – a human Mars flyby (the mission formerly known as “Inspiration Mars”). Originally, space tourist Dennis Tito proposed the mission as a privately funded activity. However, some saw this idea as a possible NASA alternative to the ARM, a way to plausibly “prepare for Mars” by going to Mars – albeit not landing there.
What would it be like to be the crew on this mission? Imagine that you’re a sailor in the Royal Navy in the 1770s on a ship bound for Tahiti. After a 10-month voyage fighting contrary winds, brutal work and hard discipline, you see an emerald green isle on the horizon. Your mind fills with images of terra firma, dancing maidens, abundant fruit and fish, swimming and lying in the Sun, and no rotten salt pork or weevil-filled hardtack. The island gets nearer and nearer. Then, you pass it by and continue on for another 9 months of what you just experienced, hopeful to make it home safely.
That’s the Mars flyby mission in a nutshell. Its advocates claim that it is better preparation for the ultimate Mars journey than the ARM mission, which is a bit like claiming that riding a bicycle to the next town is better preparation for a cross-country trip than doing loops in your own neighborhood. The alleged benefits of the Mars flyby mission are not overwhelming. It is a long-duration mission, but so are current tours on the ISS. It will practice interplanetary navigation, a skill we mastered in the mid-1960s with the first flyby of Mars, Mariner 4 – and continue to exercise with every subsequent robotic Mars mission. It will permit human eyes to gaze upon the martian surface for the first time; that view is likely to be disappointing, as Mars is a low-contrast object and almost all of the images of the planet taken to date have been processed and stretched to enhance color and appearance.
Perhaps the biggest issues are the possible downsides to a human Mars flyby. The crew will spend at least a full year in deep space, exposed to hard cosmic radiation. More troublingly, solar flares could erupt at any time, possibly showering the crew with a lethal dose of high-energy particles. It might be possible to devise a storm shelter of jacketed habitat to protect the crew during such an event, but this greatly increases the mass and complexity of the spacecraft. The crew will live in microgravity for over a year, although this feat will have already been achieved by the time it flies (a one-year tour is starting next year on the ISS).
All this for a quick fly-by. It will largely be over in about an hour. A year in space for an hour’s glimpse of Mars – sounds like a bargain to me! And in the end, will it have helped or will it have hindered the ultimate goal?
The claim that this mission is to a future human landing on Mars what the Apollo 8 mission was to the Apollo 11 lunar landing is specious. Apollo 8 was undertaken because of a very real concern that the Soviet Union was planning a circumlunar human mission by the end of 1968. It was feared that had they done so, the perception would be that the Soviets had “won” the Moon race. Apollo 8 was sent to the Moon without a lander to avert that possibility. There is no comparable geopolitical end served by this Mars fly-by mission.
So there we have it – the current state of America’s space program: wrangling over which stupid mission is the least stupid. These mental contortions are all brought about because the agency cannot consider flying a mission to the Object-That-Cannot-Be-Named.
And that’s the stupidest part of all.