Thursday, 19 June 2014

Mars is Still the Goal, but a Distant One

Ideas for sending humans for Mars have been around for many years, including this 1960s NASA concept. NASA Image.

On December 19, 1972, the astronauts of Apollo 17 strapped themselves into their couches and rode their Command Module through a high-speed re-entry to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The three astronauts were returning from a highly successful expedition to the Moon, and the end of their flight marked the last time that humans ventured beyond low Earth orbit.

More than four decades have gone by since the end of Apollo, and since then supporters of human space exploration have looked to the day when humans will again strike out beyond the environs of Earth.

Most people who support space exploration look to Mars as the target, a fact that was underlined early this month when the Committee on Human Spaceflight of the U.S. National Research Council (not to be confused with the National Research Council of Canada) issued a major report on directions for the U.S. human space program.

The report is the latest in a long series of reports commissioned by NASA, Congress (as in this case), presidents, and advocacy groups looking into the state of space exploration since the end of Apollo. While these reports have sometimes been commissioned in the hopes of stirring action or to give the illusion of action, none has so far hastened the day when astronauts will pull away from Earth orbit.

But this latest report discusses some home truths that are worth considering in relation to the current state of America's human space exploration program. First is the matter of public opinion. The report reviewed public attitudes to space exploration over the years, and found that consistently, more Americans think too much is spent on space than those who think too little is spent on space.

While it is true that most people have an inflated idea of how much money is spent on space  (NASA's budget is well below one percent of the budget of the U.S. government), it is hard for politicians to ignore public opinion, particularly when there are so many competing priorities for public dollars, many of them which are capable of creating great political controversy.

The highly expensive Apollo flights to the Moon are popular in retrospect, but polling data from the 1960s show that the public did not enthusiastically support spending on that program. Historians (including myself) are looking into the roots of Apollo, and increasingly we are finding that the race to the Moon was more a series of coincidences that for a few years vaulted space exploration into the realm of national security, always a high priority spending item, rather than being a major milestone on humanity's inevitable march to the stars, as many people believed at the time.

In a time of continued recession in the economy and austerity in U.S. government spending, the odds of NASA winning new funds for human space exploration are not great. NASA's human space exploration funds are being consumed by the International Space Station and efforts to build a replacement spacecraft for the space shuttle.

The report also set Mars as the "horizon" or long-term goal for U.S. astronauts, not a surprising goal but one that involves a number of complications. While previous administrations, including both Bush administrations, had set a NASA a goal of going to Mars, the Obama administration is pursuing an asteroid capture mission that would use robot space vehicles and the new Orion spacecraft being developed by NASA. This plan is not popular in Congress, where many space advocates want more of a focus on Mars.

But as the report suggests, there are a number of ways to get to Mars. It lays out three possible paths, including a Mars mission following an asteroid mission as proposed by the Obama administration, a mission to Mars following a return to the Moon, and a Mars mission following a step-by-step set of missions including the Moon and an asteroid.

These suggested approaches run contrary to ideas advanced by Mars flight advocates such as Robert Zubrin, who has been urging NASA to forget the Moon and any intermediate targets, and instead focus on a mission to Mars. 

Two highly publicized private initiatives are taking the Mars direct approach. One, which was promoted by Denis Tito, the millionaire who in 2001 became the first private individual to buy a trip into space, has foundered on funding problems, while another involving a one-way trip to Mars, continues despite the many questions hanging over it.

The report suggests that NASA continue to work with international partners, but this is problematical because U.S. government agencies are prohibited from working with China, today's rising space power, and cooperation with Russia is in jeopardy because of the crisis in Ukraine.

One message I take from this latest report is that Mars remains an elusive target, not only because of its great distance and the challenges involved in getting humans to Mars and back, but mainly because of a persistent lack of public interest in paying the price for such a mission.

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