In the wake of the Columbia disaster, it is gratifying to see that the majority of political leaders across the spectrum have met the setback with an attitude of resolution rather than retrenchment. There is no doubt: America will persevere in space.
Yet, it is not enough to continue the quest. We must win it. The American space program, begun so brilliantly in the era of Apollo, has spent the past thirty years without remotely comparable levels of achievement.
Why was the space program of the Apollo era so much more productive than that of today? Was it because of vastly superior funding? In point of fact it was not. NASA’s average budget during the period from 1961 to 1973, when it built up from near-zero space capability to storm heaven with the Mercury, Gemini, Ranger, Surveyor, Mariner, NERVA, Apollo and Skylab programs, was $17 billion in 2003 dollars. That is only slightly more than NASA’s current $16 billion budget. The problem is not lack of money but lack of focus and direction. For the past three decades the US space program has floundered without any central motivating goal. As a result, funds have been spent at a rate comparable to that of the 1960’s without producing anything approaching commensurate results.
We need a defining goal to drive our space program forward. At this point of history, that focus can only be the human exploration and settlement of Mars.
Why Mars? Because of all the planetary destinations currently within reach, Mars offers the most — scientifically, socially and in terms of what it portends for the future of humankind.
How do we get there?
Humans to Mars may seem like a wildly bold goal to proclaim in the wake of disaster. Yet, such a program is entirely achievable. From the technological point of view, we’re ready. Despite the greater distance to Mars, we are much better prepared today to send humans to Mars than we were to launch humans to the moon in 1961 when John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to achieve that goal — and we were there eight years later. Given the will, we could have our first teams on Mars within a decade.
How can we do this? Let us start with the present, with the space program flat on its back.
The Shuttle needs to be replaced with a small crew transfer capsule, which at a mass 10 percent of the orbiter would be light enough to launch on top of a Delta or Atlas launch vehicle. These expendable launch vehicles cost one-tenth as much as a Shuttle launch, and would be safer to ride to orbit as well, since they are modern, brand new every time they are flown and positioned beneath the payload they are lifting rather than to its side. Thus, if something goes wrong with the booster, (as in the Challenger incident) the crew capsule can get away, and if something should fall from it (as with Columbia), the crew vehicle will not be hit.
However, this done, we do not abandon the Shuttle launch infrastructure. Rather, by freeing the Shuttle launch stack of the orbiter, and giving it a hydrogen/oxygen upper stage instead, we reconfigure it into a true heavy lift launch vehicle capable of duplicating the performance of the Saturn V. With such a system, we could deliver 120 metric tons to low Earth orbit (in place of the current Shuttle’s 20), or send payloads in the 50-ton class on direct trajectories to the moon or Mars.
Using such a system together with appropriate payload elements which could be readily developed over the next five years, human Mars exploration could begin before this decade is out.
Here’s how it could be done: In 2009 we launch a single one of these Shuttle-derived heavy lift boosters off the Cape, and use it to throw to Mars an unfueled and unmanned Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) After landing on Mars, the ERV runs a pump to suck in the Martian air — mostly carbon dioxide — and reacts this with a small amount of hydrogen brought from Earth to produce a large supply of methane/oxygen rocket propellant. Then, in 2011, another booster is used to shoot the crew out to Mars. Because their return ride is waiting for them on the planet’s surface, the crew does not need to fly to Mars in a giant futuristic spaceship. Instead, a basic habitation module would do. The crew lands their hab on Mars in the vicinity of the ERV and use as their house for a year and a half while they explore the Red Planet. At the end of that time they get in the ERV and fly home, leaving the hab behind on Mars. Thus, as one mission follows another, more habs are added to the base, in the process building up mankind’s first foothold on a new world.
We don’t need to spend the next 30 years with a space program mired in impotence, spending large sums of money and taking occasional casualties, while the same missions to nowhere are flown over and over again and professional technologists dawdle endlessly without producing any new flight hardware. No great impossible breakthroughs, science fiction futurism or gargantuan technologies are needed to get to Mars. Just some good brass tacks engineering, some 19th-century industrial chemistry and a little bit of moxie.
America needs a space program whose greatest accomplishments are celebrated in newspapers, not in museums. Humans to Mars.
Robert Zubrin, an astronautical engineer, is president of the Mars Society.