What path will lead American humans to Mars?

Is it just us, or has there been a lot — a LOT — of talk about getting humans to Mars lately?

Here’s Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin promoting a book about Mars exploration. Over here is Mars One, currently accepting applications for a one-way trip to the Red Planet in 2023 — an opportunity that thousands of people applied for so far. Don’t forget the Inspiration Mars people, either.

Even as our robotic emissaries break otherworldly driving records and search for Mars’ missing atmosphere, it’s not enough for our exploratory horizons. The stunning pictures robots beam back from Mars only fuel the fire for human hopes to get there.

President Barack Obama has said he wants to get to Mars by the 2030s, but his is the latest in a series of plans to get there. Every president seems to have a new idea of Mars exploration.

A Congressional committee this week tried to cut through the noise to get some clear messages about what to do. (Context: NASA’s fiscal 2014 budget is up for discussion, so this has budgetary relevance.)

An artist's concept of how the spacecraft for the Inspiration Mars Foundation's "Mission for America" might be configured. Credit: Inspiration Mars.
An artist’s concept of how the spacecraft for the Inspiration Mars Foundation’s “Mission for America” might be configured. Credit: Inspiration Mars.

So. We had four witnesses with maybe 150 to 200 years of combined space experience appearing before the subcommittee on space on Tuesday (May 21), each with a plan.  To wit, here is a very brief summary of their individual positions:

Louis Friedman, executive director emeritus of The Planetary Society (who co-led the co-leader of the Keck Institute for Space Studies Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study): Do the asteroid mission proposed by NASA. It will launch four to five years from now. If done properly, it would be a great opportunity for humans to explore as well as for commercial opportunities in mining.

Paul Spudis,  senior staff scientist at the NASA-funded Lunar and Planetary Institute: Return to the moon. It’s close, so close to Earth that we can operate rovers by remote control. It’s a good spot to learn more about the solar system, and it provides practice for us in living off the resources of the land as it has water — a tool for life support and energy.

– Steve Squyres, Cornell University planetary scientist renowned for his Mars rover research: Go to cislunar space, the area close to the moon. It’s an easily accessible spot in a restricted budget environment. Thinking beyond that is not realistic in the current budget environment.

Douglas Cooke, NASA’s former associate administrator for the exploration systems mission directorate: Re-establish lunar exploration. The asteroid mission would not connect well with the long-term strategy, but the lunar surface would as (like Mars) it is a hostile environment suitable for testing planetary exploration technologies.

Artist impression of an astronaut on Mars (NASA)
Artist impression of an astronaut on Mars (NASA)

Representatives then peppered the space experts with tons of questions, such as:

– How best to bring in international partners?

– Should we be concerned about other countries talking about going to the moon themselves, such as Russia and China?

– Should we take away from other NASA programs, such as astronomy or debris retrieval in orbit, to focus on Mars exploration? (Recall that Mars science was slashed in 2012, including the loss of participation in ExoMars.)

– How do we interest the public in the mission? The asteroid retrieval (which many committee members heavily criticized as one released with little outside consultation) doesn’t seem to spark with the person on the street.

– Should we even attempt to go given the sequestration environment right now?

Take a listen of the experts’ answers in full in the archived webcast (available here).

But also — what’s your take? Is it worth going to Mars in the first place, and if so, how do we best achieve that? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

25 Replies to “What path will lead American humans to Mars?”

  1. “How do we interest the public in the mission?”

    that’s an annoying chicken or the egg. The general public likes missions, they just can’t really keep their interest through 2+ years of planning and building. If we could say “We’re going to Mars and the spaceship is launching TODAY!” Everyone would cheer and hop up and down. “We’re leaving for Mars in 10 years!” does not get much of a reaction with the general public. I’d love to say this is because of today’s short attention spans, but most people don’t have a long attention span, never have. It’s a human trait that’s been with us since antiquity.

    They want a mission NOW. They don’t want to pony up the dough just to put off gratification.

    1. I remember the promise that they would go back to the moon.
      The same promise to go to the Mars will fail because by then it will get cancelled by the next president by then.

      We need deep space missions now, even if it is only a capsule that goes around the moon and back.

      1. It was promised but never funded. Compounded with the time consuming engineering challenges of the poorly designed launch vehicles, it was calculated that there would be no lunar landing until the 2030s. With the planned ditch of the ISS by 2015, there would be no western spaceflight for decades. It was a train wreck waiting to happen. With the budgets involved, and with Mars in mind, and some thought, the moon is not a great place to ‘practice.’ To reach Mars, it is believed we must get experience in deep space. Which should involve manned exploration of asteroids or teleoperation. A capsule with astronauts could be sent a million miles away yet control a rover on the far side of the moon. This would be great for the first explorers reaching Mars. Instead of landing at first, they would control rovers on the surface in real time. Accomplishing in days what would normally take the Curiosity Rover months to complete.

      2. Teleoperating rovers/robots on Mars, _from Deimos_, is an appealing idea. Compared to putting humans on the martian surface:

        1. Cheaper
        2. Safer
        3. Much easier to come home
        4. Spectacular view of Mars from Deimos 🙂

    2. “… they just can’t really keep their interest through 2+ years of planning and building.”

      But once you have the operational hardware, you can’t keep their interest much beyond 2+ actual missions, either. Attention spans are, if anything, shorter than in the Apollo days. You can’t design around public ‘excitement’ and expect to sustain the project.

  2. Going to Mars is a terrible idea. Like any species, Homo sapiens will suffer badly outside its natural habitat (Earth). The concept of “terraforming” is obscene; how dare a species already in the process of destroying its own planet presume to artificially “fix” another? The whole concept of human space travel will prove to be finite, as it gradually becomes clear that it represents a dead-end: humanity’s futile attempt to run away from itself.

  3. We need cheap and efficient energy production first. For the travel and for the stay.

  4. The problem with all the assessments is they all rely on a critical, and wrong, assumption. That assumption is that we cannot put an astronaut on Mars for decade(s) and for less than hundreds of billions of dollars, because that is what the NASA budget predictions say. Those budgets in turn are predicated on doing business as usual, which means spending enormous resources to protect the crew. NASA could get to Mars fast, and inexpensively, by trading those for risk.

    Consider the Space Shuttle, It had 5 computers that could fly the vehicle, one from a different manufacturer. The crew could control almost every function and even laptops could be used in some cases. All that redundancy, meant extra wiring, launch mass, complexity, personnel, management and development schedule. The Shuttle really needed 2 computers or even 1 plus the crew. It is the same for each critical system. NASA management would have to dictate the elimination of most of the reviews. The power and scope of various safety offices would need to be severely curtailed.

    Imagine if an American president said to the public something like: “Americans are going to Mars. It will be a cost we can afford, and will launch by the end of my term. But, the public must be prepared: these astronauts are pioneers, and like true pioneers of the past, some are likely to die in the attempt. We will send more”.

    The public would be behind this completely, especially the risk part. It would be a spectacle; who among us doesn’t at least take a sidelong glance at the highway crash site as you drive past?

    Having worked at JSC, I don’t think it is in the DNA of most there to do this. “Safety” permeates the culture and it expands to fill any void. You can always design a safer system; and it will always cost more in dollars and time.

    People will work enormous hours to prevent a mistake or disaster from occurring, on this we already rely. Mistakes will occur, bad ones perhaps. But this is a risk we must take. The alternatives to get to Mars are 1) a vastly increased budget and long time scale, subject to political reversals – the current thinking. or, 2) go no where at all.

    We have the launch vehicles to do this quickly. Orion will be ready soon, and could be ready faster, with fewer reviews and less bloated requirements on safety. We’ve had decades to design habitats, so pick a simple design, flesh it out and launch it. Getting something large through the thin atmosphere of Mars and the relatively large gravity well is hard, but we can do it piecemeal, if needed and assemble on the surface.

    We can do all this, now, if we stop being afraid of risk.

    1. Amen! We have especially Americans and Western Europeans lost our nerve. I think the 24hr news cycle is largely responsible, where these things are beat to death for weeks on a never ending loop for the horror of all to behold.

      There is a thing in the law known as “assumption of the risk” in practical terms it means if you make the decision to try and car surf your buddies Buick on the freeway you can’t turn around and sue him if you fall and hurt yourself. The same should apply here. Space travel is a very dangerous thing to do, however those who understand and are willing to accept those risks should be allowed to lead us forward.

      Give me a 65% chance of success to go to Mars and I’d be willing to roll the dice.

  5. A manned mission to an asteroid does not excite me.

    Catching an asteroid is as exiting as an astronaut doing an EVA on the ISS.
    Robotic exploration could do a better job here, especially when this asteroid turns out to be only a few meters in diameter. So dissapointing. An asteroid the size of Vesta or Ceres would be more exciting.

    Going to the moon and set up a base does excite me because that means in my lifetime there could be a chance that I would work there or visit it on some kind of space cruise.

    Mars is harder, it is not going to happen that I personally visit that place because it is too far.

  6. The significance of asteroid capture has been indequately explained. We have been at the mercy of chance and luck. Not many realize how numerous, and potentially dangerous asteroids can be. Despite our improved observation techniques, there are many more asteroids yet to be discovered. Some can shatter glass and damage property, while larger ones can flatten forests, wipe out cities and whoever lives in them. Cover the sky with sun-blocking dust, wither our crops, or even usher extinction. We all know it occurred before. It could happen again. Our world crosses a vast and ever changing mine field. Asside from the doom, and the gloom, our engineering is at the cusp of changing that fact.

    Controlling the orbit of an asteroid, effectively changes our destiny. Like the invention of electricity and the street light, we were no longer beholden to nature’s celestial cycles of night and day. We can work and play without the sunshine. Learning how to control the orbit of asteroids ensures continued prosperity and survival. We can learn much about them, and in doing so we may learn much about ourselves, and where we came from. It would be control, awesome control. If an object is interesting, yet far outside a reasonable orbit to explore, it could be diverted to an orbit with more frequent launch windows and longer stays. We could bring it close to home or push it far away. We must not pass this opportunity. We must start from somewhere and soon.

    Encircling Mars are two moons that are essentially asteroids. Phobos and Diemos. Fear and Terror. When the first explores reach the vicinity of Mars, they may not land on the surface, but land and explore these moons. Techniques used for smaller, captured asteroids may be applied to these tiny destinations. They may become the base of of Mars exploration. They could contain propellant or building material. Either way, I believe we should embrace these mountains in space and climb them. They offer a weath of knowledge, material and experience. In order to reach Mars, we must first scale these asteroids and thereby conquer Fear and Terror.

    1. Capturing an asteroid is one thing. But that could be perfectly done with robotic exploration. We can probably send 10 asteroid robotic capturing missions for one manned asteroid mission.

      The first time I heard about the asteroid mission I thought ok good, it will be to some 10 km asteroid. But it turns out to be a meter meters size asteroid that no one would even be able to see in their binoculars. It does not capture the imagination of people.

      Also what is the point in going to Mars if you do not land on it? People want to see the bunny hups as they saw the astronauts hups on the Moon. Not floating astronauts in weightless space just like we already have on the ISS.

      Even though the ISS does great science, people in the street do not care about the ISS.

      1. The asteroid capture part will be completely, robotic. The only manned part is the visiting astronauts and ground control. ;c) That is the great thing about the strategy. It will cost far less than a lunar mission while doing great exploration and lots of sample return. If a plucky private firm can make money from some kind of mining operation, that would be excellent news. I think it would be very difficult to see a 10 km asteroid orbiting the moon through binoculars. The more interesting carbon asteroids would be dark and tough to see. It would certainly be better to watch the mission on TV or a computer. Indeed the asteroids will be smallish, but gotta start from somewhere, right? It will be very inspiring for a lot of people once the context is established. (If you haven’t seen the animation, let me know, I can link it to you) Besides capturing asteroids, once an interesting, larger, and farther, asteroid is located, plans should be drawn to explore it. The farther the missions go, the more experience and confidence can be built for deep spaceflight, that is needed in order to go to Mars.

        Of course, one opinion can’t speak for everyone. The problem is that it takes working hardware to undertake these ideas, and there is not a lot of money to go around. We may have the vehicles to get to people to Mars 15 years from now, but there may not be much money left for a reliable and capable manned Mars lander. The good news is that telerobotics can make up for that development lag. While building and testing vehicles that can land people and tons of cargo on Mars, astronauts can control rovers on the surface in real time. That would provide the efficiency of robotic exploration with the fast paced and ground cover of a manned mission. It would be a powerful synergy or human and robotic exploration, and the mysterious moon of Phobos is right outside the airlock. It won’t be entirely weightless, things would fall to the ‘floor.’ They could step outside with a suit, not to climb on a truss, but scale a mountain with almost the same area as the state of Delware, in space. I do hope people’s dreams of space are more sophisticated than jumping around.

        But hey, I would like to see people on Mars, too. Though we must be pragmatic with what we are expected to have at a given time. People on the street are absorbed with their own concerns. Outer space is far separated from their lives, and more than likely, cannot see the stars at night. Perhaps the trick is to bring space closer to home, any advancement, any opening possibilities, anything new and exciting that directly benefits can spur some form of curiosity. We just have to go forth, and do things differently than ever before.

  7. We should commit x% of our budget to NASA and it should ALWAYS get that budget … a CONSTITUTIONAL amendment, perhaps. The President should not establish the direction … the COMMERCIALIZATION of SPACE should set the direction for human exploration and PURE SCIENCE should set the goals for ROBOTIC Missions and probes.NO ONE can get excited about any plan because it gets REWRITTEN with every PRESIDENT and CONGRESS won’t allocate funds to get the mission done in a relevent amount of time. IT WON’T TAKE 10 Years if we commit the funds and allow that an acceptable RISK is necessary. Why can’t we have both a Moon Base AND Mars Exploration (including at the same time?? We are too single threaded. Let’s do, not plan forever!!! I was 16 when we landed on the moon. I will likely be DEAD before another moon landing takes place!!! A whole lifetime without any significant human exploration outside of LEO which is BORING. Why don’t we have a prototype moon base ON THE MOON (perhaps unmanned) as a test bed for how to actually live off the land. Labs won’t give us the answers. The moon is, at most, a week away in case Astronauts get in trouble.

    The spinoffs alone would put us back on top economically and scientificially (if we can keep the Chinese from stealing everything we invent or create)


    The World and especially AMERICA is NOT interested in 10 year plans. Example – SLS could be completed much quicker with adeqate funding but I suspect it won’t fly until 2020 or beyond due to funding limits. I agree that we should sacrifice some safety because no matter how “safe” we make the mission, we will have a disaster sooner or later. These are acceptible and NECESSARY risks otherwise we will be planning while CHINA, RUSSIA and others are DOING. One doesn’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

    Consider if the early pioneers would only go West if there were sufficient soldiers to guarantee safety from Indians. We would never have gotten to the Mississippi Valley!!!

    Why haven’t we been to the moon again?? Learning to live on the moon will provide valuable lessons for Mars.

    1. “We should commit x% of our budget to NASA and it should ALWAYS get that budget …”

      NASA may be ‘sacred’ to you and I, but to many, it’s just another branch of the United States Government. If you could make this happen, every other branch could argue that they should be treated in the same way. Then there’s the inevitable battle over what the value of ‘x’ should be, especially if you’re locking yourself into it. And it may end up being smaller than you would like. Be careful what you wish for…

      “A whole lifetime without any significant human exploration outside of LEO which is BORING.”

      Then go to a movie.

      Sorry, but space research is not inherently exciting, and space exploration is a subset of space research. I’m old enough to easily remember when people (outside of even-then space geeks like myself) got ‘bored’ with Lunar landings, after the first two or three. I guarantee, it will be true of Mars, too. The completely uninterested public will ask why we’re ‘still’ doing this at all, the ‘excitement junkies’ will ask why we’re still doing this, ‘stuck’ on Mars, and not going on to the moons of Jupiter?

      This is why it’s important to do human space research and development in the most *economical* way possible, and not (like the deadline-driven Apollo program) the *soonest.* No one asks why there are so many research bases in Antarctica, or why we maintain any there at all, because the logistical and transportation technology (ships and planes, which are also used for other things) is mature enough and inexpensive enough that it’s below anyone’s funding radar.

      In the ideal world, Lunar/Mars operations would be so routine (and that means low-profile and ‘boring’) that few would question its continuation, either…

      “I was 16 when we landed on the moon”

      I was 15. I hear you, but I also came to understand just *why* this is so, and stand by what I said.

      And it’s not too late…

  8. This kind of stuff should be an international effort. If America wants to put an American on mars just so the men in suits can say hey, we’ve put an American on mars, then it’s going to be an expensive bit of d!ck waving.

    International collaboration will make this happen a hell of a lot quicker and when the multi-national crew get there they could always do rock, paper, scissors to see who steps out first.

    There yeah go, all sorted. You’re welcome!

    1. “International collaboration will make this happen a hell of a lot quicker…”

      Yep, another layer of bureaucracy on top of that which we already have, and a project that’s hostage to the continued good will between all involved, for the muti-deacde life of said project. I can hardly wait…

      1. Nonsense.

        Collaboration seems to work fine for ISS missions. Why not use the same ‘can do’ attitude for further afield?

        And when you consider the fact that without collaboration the ISS wouldn’t be at the stage it’s at today, then thinking one country could realistically go on a jolly to mars without some sort of collaboration is pure Hollywood.

  9. Putting a human on mars is nothing but an expensive nod to ego.

    Better to spend the money exploring some of the other moons with robots.

    I’m interested in learning new things, not high-fiving because some dude steps on mars. We have robots there already doing a great job.

  10. Why does it have to be an American? I was born in the good’ole USA. But the race to outer space is over with some 40 years ago. WE WON!. The key word is “humans”. When ‘humanity’ puts all our resources together. Much better, faster with a higher degree of perfection is attained. It also lessens the financial burdens on any one particular country. It must be a all inclusive journey. ;~)

  11. Instead of funneling billions of dollars to 3rd world countries and giving billions in handouts to illegals ..all that money could be used to create the most awe-inspiring space program ever devised. The problem is..is that we have leaders who don’t have any balls !!!!!

  12. Lead, follow or get out of the way. We used to lead, now we follow (need someone else to get us in space). probably time to get out of the way. People will go to Mars, and soon. the history of man as a species leaves no doubt of this. there is money to be made in space and a future. My kids will probably need a chinese visa to get there and and pay service fees to some other country to use their satelites, but we will go non-the less.

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