Will NASA Ever Fly People to Mars?
The journey of Columbus failed. He went looking for the West Indies and didn’t find them. Ol’ Chris made a very serious math error and didn’t know that there was another continent in the way, even after he’d landed on it!
The Voyage of Discovery made by Lewis and Clark failed also. As it turns out, The North West Passage over the North end of the continental United States did not, and had not ever, existed! Climate change might make one some day north of Canada, but that is not a good thing anyway, and pointless since we now have aircraft and stuff.
So those human exploration endeavors fell flat on their original objectives. The explorers found none of the things that their funding agencies paid them to find. They were mistakes and should never have been attempted. Someone should have just taken longer to plan them out. They should have waited to make sure the path was clear, that all of the risks were foreseen and managed, and that they knew everything they were going to find ahead of time so that all that was needed was for someone to simply walk over and pick it up.
If Columbus had done his math right, he would’ve seen that the West Indies were way too far away for him to get there in a single journey with his technology…and that he very likely would die trying it. Then he might have just stayed home and spent his life making maps for other travelers, growing old and fat while telling his children and grandchildren tales about that huge, dangerous, embarrassing mistake he almost made.
Lewis and Clark, after reaching the top of the Continental Divide in Montana, at the head of the Missouri River, saw that what lay beyond was not another river flowing down into a Western sea, but instead row after row of huge mountain ranges as far as the eye could see. They didn’t just shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, alrighty then. That looks pretty hard to cross. So let’s just go back and tell Jefferson to let Mexico have it.”
Has the spirit of discovery died? Have we as a culture grown so comfortable with the known quantities in our lives that we’ve forgotten that part of us that makes us most human? Does the bulk of humanity finally think that we found what we left Africa for so long ago? Have we lost what moves us to…well…move us?
I think that NASA (and their government sponsors) may have become too risk averse to conduct traditional exploration. Robots do great science, but they have no soul and practically no one understands 99% of what they do. When we start to put visual light imagers on exploration spacecraft just as an after-thought then maybe it’s time for human eyes to run out and take a look. The Cupola on the International Space Station almost didn’t happen because Congress thought that a big, fancy, window-seat looking out over Earth was too frivolous for funding. However, such things feed the human spirit of discovery!
I’ll share with you an excerpt from my book, Into the Dark: Escape of the Nomad. In it a former NASA astronaut, grounded by a world filled with apathy and fear, takes matters into his own hands and builds a ship of his own with which he travels to Saturn…
“I’ve seen Earth from orbit and it is truly beautiful–and awe inspiring. It consumes the mind with its size, and with its geologic and atmospheric wonders. But Saturn is almost ten times larger than Earth; with thick, complex clouds completely obscuring the surface of the planet and moving barely fast enough for the human eye to perceive. The colors between the bands, pushed by powerful winds, swirl together in circular patterns that never occur again, and never seem to end, as the rapid spin of the planet mixes its atmosphere like a giant blender.
“And those rings! The many bands and colors in their plaited arrangements show a depth and iridescence that is impossible to see from a distance or in a photograph. They reflect the sunlight as a rainbow, that shifts and rolls before your eyes, changing at every angle, making you hesitate to blink lest you miss the next phenomenal episode in their never-ending light show. Their glistening particles, arranged and aligned as if by an artist’s hand, seem like they’re made specifically to entrance you with their sparkling gravitational dance.
“All this at the same time that the planet’s shear size reaches out and crushes you with a fearful realization of your own smallness. Nothing on Earth can prepare you for it, because the Earth cannot contain anything so in contrast to your size as is Saturn. It looms over you, growing ever larger, like some great doom in a childhood nightmare.
“The eyes, strained by its brightness, want to look away; yet they are ensnared in an all enveloping, wondrous trance; leaving the other senses envious of their torture.”
Will anyone ever describe Mars this way, through eyes of flesh? Yes…but the person who does it first won’t be sent by NASA.
We see a convergence of technology advancements that will very soon lead to a human exploration of Mars, but NASA will not arrive at the red planet on that day. I have watched this closely for years, taking the Jet Propulsion Laboratory training online, listening to their press releases, and I’ve come to the conclusion that NASA will support the development and application of the combination of tech that will empower other folks to send their folks to the surface of Mars. Then NASA will follow in vessels built and tested by others and will stay in Martian shelters built by the locals. They’ll do like National Geographic and that guy on River Monsters, hiring the natives to serve as guides when they visit to do their science. NASA, their sponsors, and their sponsor’s sponsors (the U.S. citizens) have grown too comfortable. Most of us have stuck our feet so deep into the warm, cozy mud of linear thinking and surrounded ourselves with so many music icons and sports heroes and acting idols that we content ourselves to see the unknown through our magical entertainment devices. We prefer to stay curled up, snuggling under a the false blanket of our own delusions of free this and free that.
Mars is hard. Mars is actually really, really hard. To send people to Mars will be the most difficult exploration project that humans have ever undertaken. So it will be done like most of the big exploration projects of old…on the fringes of human awareness…until the discoveries made by the obscure few grab the rest of us by the shoulders and shake us awake.
Here is what will need to happen, in sequence, before NASA ever sends their own boots to Mars…
- A National Security interest will need to be at stake…then,
- An act of Congress will fund the project, at at least a full digit more cost than any of us feel comfortable with…then,
- All necessary technologies will need to be available and fully tested…, then.
- The designs and design changes for all spacecraft will be locked-in for a four to eight year development cycle (and no, the current Orion and SLS Mark I and Mark 1A designs won’t cut it alone)…then.
- We will need to experience no significant change in political momentum for 80% of the length of the development cycle…then,
- They have to HIT the launch window! Slipped milestones that push the launch forward an additional 26 months until Mars swings past us again would almost certainly kill the project.
No wonder NASA doesn’t think they’ll go until after 2030.
What happens when you stand around too long at Wendy’s while deciding what to order? I’ll tell you…someone who already knows what they want slips in line in front of you.
Ironically, only NASA knows how to shoot things off to Mars and land them, GENTLY, on its surface. If anyone unaffiliated with NASA tries to do it first, they run a very real risk of placing a small number of unfortunate people either in permanent solar orbit or at the bottom of a fresh crater on the Martian surface. However, SpaceX, the European Space Agency and even RosCosmos are all affiliated with NASA. Even the NASA contractors of old look like they may have finally started to figure out where all of this New Space stuff is headed and some of them just might survive the revelation long enough to start start competing head-to-head with the new guys. These people all share access to the NASA tech database. What NASA knows they know, or will know long before NASA can fly to Mars in 2030.
At least we know that an Apollo-style “Flags and Footprints” mission won’t work for a Mars. Travel to and from such a place is measured in months and years, not days or weeks. Explorers will spend most of their time on the opposite side of the Sun from us, and so colony-style living accommodations will have to be developed and used for the trip there and the trip back and for dirt-side. No one can live in a capsule for two years and anything that you build that you can live in for two years has another name that we can use for it…”infrastructure”!
But private explorers will build it…not NASA.