The Mars Omelette

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap vi...

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap visible on the bottom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve waited a few days to comment on this, and I’m glad that I did. It allowed time for my natural cynicism to soften somewhat, and for me to better educate myself about the history of the Planetary Society’s “Orbit First” proposal so that I don’t make a fool of myself.

I thought about introducing this piece as a joke, with a sarcastic punchline, but The Planetary Society in general, and Bill Nye and Emily Lakdawalla in particular, deserve better.

  • Yes, we now know that Mars, whether it already has life or not, is probably capable of supporting some kinds of Earth microbes that we might bring there.
  • Yes, if that happened it would cloud the waters on the question of whether or not Mars has life of its own.
  • Yes, any creature from here that goes there will bring microbes with them.
  • Yes, if there is life on Mars, and if that life can be proven to have originated there, it would mean that the universe, and maybe even our solar system, teems with life…at least microbial life.
  • And…Yes, I fully appreciate the deep cultural and scientific significance of answering that question. I for one want an answer to that question.
  • And…No, I’m not going to argue with the scientists over the details and benefits of Orbit First. I had planned to, but multiple people far smarter than me put it together. In fact I actually agree with them…along that line of thinking.


Exploration isn’t just about science, folks. It’s also, and always has been, about people and economics. No one is going to fork over the money to send someone to Mars just to hang out in their spacecraft in orbit and not get their feet dirty. No government would do that, and don’t even ask commercial interests like Elon Musk to do it. Phobos maybe, but unlikely. A “flyby and return” would be prudent, but to go all the way there and aerobrake to enter orbit and then stay in orbit and NOT land? Ain’t happenin’. Too many folks want to start turning it Mars into a second Earth. On that note, the “Orbit First” philosophy does have at least one safety/cost advantage, the lack of a need to carry or synthesize fuel to reboost out of the Mars gravity well to get home.

They say that good science can be lost by having researchers live on the ground verses playing with germ-free robots from orbit. How much longer do we have to wait for the scientists to convince folks that Mars is important to Earth? How much more science would be lost by dashing the hopes of yet another generation of potential Mars explorers? On a 2040ish timeline, how many more folks would miss out on a planetary exploration career and go do something else instead? Now compare that to a 2030s timeline or a 2020s timeline where today’s middle-schoolers graduate from college into a world that sends geologists, chemists, climatologists…maybe even biologists, to the surface of Mars.

Ya…I said 2020s. Hear me out.

English: Artist's rendering of a Mars Explorat...

English: Artist’s rendering of a Mars Exploration Rover. Français : Vue d’artiste d’un Mars Exploration Rover (litt. « rover d’exploration martienne »). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not even all that sure that Orbit First actually solves the whole “Earth microbes mucking up Mars’ science” problem. If there is no life on Mars, then we still won’t know that there isn’t. You can’t always prove a negative. So, what then? Do we still just sit in orbit and keep looking…the slow robot way…spending money to send both humans and rovers? For how long? They will still need to use more expensive, mostly autonomous rovers like Curiosity, because you can’t repair them or pull them out of the sand from orbit. Assuming they do find a way to find life using just robotic explorers, and do find some single-cell critter down there, that still won’t conclusively rule out the highly unlikely possibility that it originated from Earth. Whether humans land on the planet first or not, the follow-up study concerning the origins of that critter will still need to be conducted before scientists can answer the core issue of “Can conditions on Mars MAKE life?”. Good science would still require it. We might even have to find life on Europa and/or Enceladus to fully satisfy the skeptics and put that issue to bed for good. How long will that take? I’ve already been told by professional scientists that it would take a decade or more.

Well I’m not a professional scientist, but I am a cultural science fiction writer. So I’ll let two fictional characters, 11 year old Bobby and his mom, explain the next problem in terms that both NASA and The Planetary Society can understand…

“Bobby, put away that computer game and go do your math.”

“But maaaaaahm! Math is boring!”

“Bobby, if you do your math you might someday help land more robots on Mars.”

“A…huh…and…umm…what’s Donald Trump do for a living? He has lots of money right? If he needs math, maybe you should lead with that, Mom. Oh, actually, I think I’ll just let someone pay me to test computer games. There’s no math in that.”

Do you see how that works? That delusional little bit about spending a lifetime being paid to sit around at home and play computer games isn’t fiction. It’s a near direct quote from several young people I’ve listened to. We’re raising a generation of intellectual cro-magnons, and it’s our own fault. We’ve forgotten how to be a resilient species. We’ve spent fifty plus years going in circles in low earth orbit. The current U.S. President, the one person with the most influence over NASA’s direction, calls the moon a “been there done that” sort of thing…like it was some kind of Disneyland, an epically lame excuse for institutional selfishness and mediocrity! We kick the can down the road to Mars, generation after generation after generation of elected officials taking the easy way out, paying Mars rocket prices for spaceships that fly around the world, and then patting themselves on the back for bringing tax money home to their states!

Mars Polar Lander

Mars Polar Lander (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The biggest issue though, and the one that we’ll have to end up breaking the eggs over, is that human scientists do faster work than robots and far more careful work than colonists. The clock for that is already ticking.

  • Last month, NASA said that they wanted to fly a sample-return mission to Mars. I know…they were talking about sending it on the Space Launch System, but SpaceX almost instantly tweeted that they already had their spacecraft for that, “Red Dragon”, all drawn up and ready to build. Tick.
  • Right after that, on the same day, Elon tweeted that the throwaway version of Falcon Heavy will have enough throw-weight to heft a fully loaded Dragon V2 to Mars, or a lightly loaded V2 to Europa. Ya, that’s right…he’s talkin’ about JUPITER! BIG tick.
  • A Bigalow 330 space habitat module will fly to the ISS this year for testing. Tick.
  • Next year, the Falcon Heavy flies for the first time. Elon built it to go to be Mars launcher, make no mistake about that. Tick.
  • Those SpaceX and Boeing Commercial Crew capsules fly with people in them in 2017. Tick.

According to Bill Nye, NASA’s plan to land on Mars can’t work until 2045. That makes sense to me but NASA and Congress will both be in denial about that right now. SLS as a program would never survive budget cuts that for long without going to Mars. For SLS and Orion, the 2030s are do or die. Bill says that the Orbit First plan will orbit Mars during the 2030s and land in 2039. I recall he and Emily Lakdawalla both said that some of it could be crowd funded, but that it would need the help of one or two wealthy donors too…but I say that the big private money is already pickin’ targets and it ain’t shootin’ for orbit and ain’t waitin’ for 2030.

Emily says that Orbit First serves good science better than sending our germ-oozing, “meat-bag” selves down…and she’s right…but I say that by 2030 there will already be plenty of germ-oozing meat-bags living on the surface of Mars (and maybe not just Mars), building structures, planting corn, andwiping their noses on their sleeves, and kicking over rocks looking for ununobtainium.

Drawing of the American (SpaceX) Falcon 9 carr...

Drawing of the American (SpaceX) Falcon 9 carrier rocket (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s the thing. The dot com billionairs (and Elon isn’t the only one interested in this) won’t wait. They won’t be denied, and neither will the upcoming generation. What happens when Mars starts to look close enough and useful enough that the old money starts to notice and throw coin at it too? What happens when it starts to look like a game that millionaires can play too? What happens when venture capitol firms get in the game. Bill says that the Orbit First plan gives NASA time for buy-in from Commercial Space…but who says that Commercial Space will even need buy-in from NASA?

You don’t believe me? That proof of concept flyby that I mentioned earlier…lets see just what that’ll take.

  • One or two Falcon Heavy launches. They cost some $150 M each I think, and will start flying in 2016.
  • One or two Bigalow inflatable modules. I don’t know what those cost, but they’re in the millions, not billions, and there are already two of them in orbit. Another one will go up this year and connect to the ISS for testing.
  • One Dragon V2 or whatever comes after…or a Boeing Starliner. Again, millions, not billions and they’ll be certified for human travel in 2017.
  • Eight healthy Mars enthusiasts for passengers, with enough money to split the cost between them, with some help from someone else with deep pockets. Remember that Elon Musk started this journey with the intent of spending his money to go to Mars.

I’m guessing…2020. After that who know what comes next?

The private money, the tech, the momentum…they’re all converging on powered descent to Mars dirt much closer than 2040. Anyone headed to the surface of Mars much after about 2028 will be there to deliver the mail. They’ll descend onto a very nice, VFR guided, 3D printed landing pad. The friendly, hard-working locals will come out and throw an arrival party complete with home-grown vegiburgers and Olympus Mons beer!

If current trends hold, by the time anyone funded by Congress makes it to Mars, they won’t need to bring any food. Theyll eat at fancy, shmancy equatorial restaurants serving Black Angus Beef!

So if the Planetary Society wants to put people in Mars orbit to study it for a while before all them germ-oozing, Mars-hugging, meat-bags land, they’d better launch soon.

Emily’s young, maybe she’ll sign-up for that fly-by. 😉

~ by Bill Housley on October 1, 2015.

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