The choice for Kitty Hawk

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Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers historic first flight at Kitty Hawk and falls within the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Such a portentous occasion cannot go by unmarked, and the word is out that President Bush will travel to the scene of the aviation pioneers’ triumph to make a statement reaffirming America’s commitment to exploring new frontiers, which now lie in space.

The question is, what will the vision be? For the past 30 years, since the conclusion of the Apollo Moon landings, humans to Mars has been the challenge staring the space program in the face. Because it once had abundant flowing liquid water, Mars could have been, and may yet be, a home for life. The Red Planet thus is the Rosetta stone that holds the key to our enlightenment on the issue of the prevalence and diversity of life in the universe. Uniquely among all the worlds within our reach, it possesses all the other resources needed for not only life, but technological civilization. Mars is also the critical test that will determine whether humankind can transcend its limits and become a multi-planet species.

In 1969, NASA had plans for human Mars exploration to commence by 1981. Unfortunately, the program was aborted by the Nixon administration, and American astronauts have been confined to low Earth orbit ever since. Tomorrow, will the president call for our space program to shake off its three decades of stagnation and reach for the prize?

Not if the current agency bureaucracy can help it. According to several reports, NASA headquarters has forwarded a timid plan calling for a return to the moon by the end of the next decade.

How low have we fallen? Manned moon landings in 17 years? Starting with virtually no space technology base, the America of slide rules and rotary phones did it in eight. For the president to stand at Kitty Hawk and proclaim this goal as a bold new vision for the American space program would be farcical. Rather than representing a reaffirmation of the tradition of the Wright Brothers and Lewis and Clark, it would be a denial. Furthermore, by setting a timeline for an initiative that requires no real action within his administration or the next, such an announcement would really serve simply as visionary camouflage for yet another decade of continued NASA random activity, waste and stagnation.

We can do much better. Future-fantasy spacecraft are not needed to send humans to Mars. The primary real requirement is a heavy lift booster with a capability similar to the Saturn V launch vehicle employed in the 1960s. Such a booster could be readily created today by stripping the shuttle launch stack of the Orbiter, replacing it with a payload fairing containing a chemical rocket stage.

The mission could then be accomplishedwithtwo launches. The first would send an unfueled and unmanned Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) to Mars. After landing, this vehicle would manufactureitsown methane/oxygen return propellant by combining a small amount of hydrogen imported from Earth with a large supply of carbon dioxide acquired from the Martian atmosphere. The chemistry required to perform this operation has been widely practiced on Earth since the gaslight era.

Once the propellant is manufactured, the crew is sent to Mars in a habitation module launched by the second booster. The hab module is landed near the ERV and used for a year and a half as the crew’s base for exploring the Martian surface, after which the crew enters the return vehicle and flies home. The hab module is left behind on Mars, so each time a mission is flown, another habitation is added to the base. There is nothing required by such a plan that is beyond our technology.

The issue is not money. The issue is leadership. NASA’s average Apollo-era (1961-73) budget, adjusted for inflation, was about $17 billion a year in today’s dollars, only 10 percent more than the agency’s current budget. Yet, the NASA of the ‘60s accomplished a hundred times more because it had a mission with a deadline, and was forced to develop an efficient plan to achieve that mission, and then constrained to build a coherent set of hardware elements to achieve that plan. If Mr. Bush is willing to provide that kind of direction, we can have humans on Mars within a decade. If he is not, we will be left with a space program that continues to spend vast sums on a random set of projects that do not fit together and do not lead anywhere; not to Mars or to the moon, not in 20 years, or in 50.

The American people want and deserve a space program that really explores new worlds. On Dec. 17, the ghosts of the Wrights and Lewis and Clark will cry out to Mr. Bush to give it to them. I hope he will listen.

Robert Zubrin, an astronautical engineer, is president of the Mars Society and author of “The Case for Mars” and “Mars on Earth.”

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