Bar our own planet Mars is by far the most studied planet in the solar system. Despite the fact that almost half the missions sent to Mars have ended in disaster we’ve still managed to do a whole lot of science there and our most recent mission, the Curiosity rover, has managed to capture the attention of millions worldwide. The next logical step would then be to send ourselves over there as whilst robotic explorers are great at specific tasks there’s a whole host of other things we could do if we had a few pairs of boots over there. Such a mission has been on everyone’s minds ever since we first set foot on the Moon over 4 decades ago but progress towards achieving it has been slow, verging on non-existent.
This is not to say that there isn’t interest in doing this. NASA currently has a mandate set by the Obama government to reach Mars by 2030 a goal which they’re actively working towards with the Space Launch System. SpaceX has also expressed a keen interest in doing something similar, albeit without help from NASA, in a much more aggressive time frame. Russia has also alluded to a revamp in their space program, primarily aimed at modernizing their current fleet, which could see them establishing a moon base and possibly flying a mission to Mars. However none of these have created the stir that the fully private Mars One mission and that’s probably for good reason.
For the uninitiated Mars One is a non-profit organisation that has the extremely ambitious goal of landing 4 people on the surface of Mars by 2023. They believe they can do this at a total cost of about $6 billion for the first 4 ($4 billion for the second lot) and plan to raise a chunk of that change through making a reality TV show based around the recruitment process. This is where it gets interesting/controversial as the application process is open to anyone and has already garnered 78,000 applications from around the world. In case you’re wondering no, I’m not one of them because I’m quite sceptical that they, or anyone really, could pull off this feat with the budget they’re claiming. I’d do a detailed breakdown of why this is so but I came across this article this morning that does a far better job of explaining it than I’d do.
At the same time Buzz Aldrin has just released his new book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration which is the culmination of his many decades of experience and ideas for getting us humans to our red sister. Whilst I haven’t had a chance to read it I do know of many of the things he’ll be discussing in it (like the Aldrin Cycler) and they’re solid, realistic goals that could be achieved by NASA in the time frames he sets out. If you’re doubting his credentials Buzz has a Phd in astronautics and has done a lot of work for NASA that’s still in use today. Whether or not NASA, or any other space faring nation for that matter, takes his advice under wing will remain to be seen but I’m sure the book will make great reading regardless.
All that being said I do get the feeling that we’re starting to see the beginnings of a mini-space race, one that’s taking place between the private space industry and the super power governments of the world. It’s anyone’s guess who will emerge the victor from this but I’m just thankful that there are multiple entities all driving towards the same goal as the more players we have in the field the more likely it is to happen. I’m sceptical that we’ll see humans on Mars within the next decade but we’re likely to push the boundaries of human exploration further than has ever been done before, fixing us firmly on a path to our celestial sister.
I’ve long held the stance that NASA should be shifting its activities away from the rudimentary tasks of getting things into orbit and focusing more on pushing the envelope of their capabilities. Whilst there are no private agencies yet at the same level as what NASA was capable of with the Shuttle and other previous launch systems there are many that are coming very close, some only a couple of years away from sending people into space. Unfortunately due to the tough times that the United States is currently facing it seems that all agencies over there have had to suffer some set backs and this has put many of NASA’s cutting edge projects in jeopardy.
The James Web Space Telescope for instance has recently been placed under review due to the massive cost overruns that the project has been facing. Pegged as the spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope the JWST was initially priced scoped at costing roughly $1.6 billion but the latest estimates have it costing well over 4 times that, threatening other programs that NASA runs. That’s bad enough in itself but NASA has also had its budget cut by appoximately $1.9 billion, a quarter of which was dedicated to funding the JWST. That means that if the project is to continue either additional funding has to materialize or NASA will have to cut other projects to see it through. Some of the possible projects included the as of yet unannounced replacement for the Shuttle, which would mean a significant delay for the return of NASA’s ability to launch humans into space.
However NASA does appear to be dedicated to the challenge that President Obama laid before them some time ago and have just recently announced their plans for a new ambitious rocket called the Space Launch System:
SLS will have an initial lift capacity of over 70 metric tons – about 154,000 pounds (70,000 kg). That’s three times the lift capability of the space shuttles! In the event of a Mars mission that can be upgraded to 130 metric tons – about the weight of 75 SUVs.
The first developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017.
SLS will be the first exploration-class vehicle since the giant Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Using rocket technology developed during the shuttle era and modified for the canceled Constellation program, combined with cutting-edge manufacturing processes, SLS will expand the boundaries of human spaceflight and extend our reach into the solar system.
On paper it’s quite an impressive rocket, able to heft a whopping 130 tons into orbit if required to do so. Compared to the Saturn V this is about 11 tons more payload into orbit and whilst the initial designs show Shuttle like solid rocket boosters on the side the ultimate goal is to eliminate those entirely. The rocket’s intended goals are to form the basis of future exploratory missions to the moon and beyond, with the first launches scheduled for 2017 on an unmanned trip around the moon.
Keen observers will notice how similar this design looks to the DIRECT proposal I briefly talked about just over a year ago. Indeed many of the aspects that they advocated should be in a new launch system made their way into the SLS including reuse of many key components and man-rating designs that already have a proven launch record behind them. Their designs however aren’t currently feasible due to the shutting down of several key manufacturing plants but you can definitely see the heavy influence that DIRECT advocates have had on the SLS. Whilst this might reduce the launch gap that the United States will experience I’m not 100% convinced that this launcher has been conceived with the best of intentions.
The shuttle’s design was, in many ways, heavily influenced by politics and pork barrelling. A good portion of the shuttle isn’t built anywhere near the launch site with its various construction facilities strewn all about the USA. The worst of these was by far the external tank which is built in New Orleans and then needed to be shipped by barge across to Cape Canaveral. The reasoning behind this was simple, it spread the shuttle’s economic benefits across different states thereby garnering more support for it to proceed. Unfortunately this also had the terrible side effect of tying NASA to multiple states making it nigh impossible for them to do anything that could negatively impact on one state or another, even if it would be beneficial for the shuttle program overall.
The SLS then (sometimes dubbed the Senate Launch System) looks to be going down a similar path thanks to the reuse of current components which will undoubtedly mean using the same suppliers. Whilst I don’t disagree that this will create “good American jobs” I don’t like the idea that NASA exists solely for the purpose of being a pork barrel endeavour that’s only use is to redistribute government money to the public. This is especially true when you consider just how little government money they get in the first place and way too much of it is spent on keeping the giant force of people on staff rather than doing what they were initially formed to do: to push the envelope of human capabilities in space.
Maybe I’ve just been in the Slashdot/HackerNews echo chamber for too long but I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned with NASA and their endeavours in space. They still do great work from time to time but so often I see them getting caught up in political mine fields that I wonder why the USA keeps them running at all. NASA once served to inspire generations of scientists, aeronautical engineers and mathematicians that all wanted to push humanity into the final frontier. Today however NASA seems to be more of a political punching bag than anything else, and that saddens me deeply.
I still hold out hope that I’m just cynical, however.