Robert Zubrin Responds to Your Questions

A few weeks ago I reviewed Dr. Robert Zubrin’s newest book, Mars on Earth. I’ve had feedback from Universe Today readers in the past that they they’d like to ask Zubrin a few questions about his goal of sending humans to Mars, so I figured this would be a good chance to get those questions answered. I gave people on the forum a few days to propose their questions and then I selected four questions that I felt were original, and didn’t really cover territory that we’ve heard Zubrin talk about in past (such as in The Case for Mars and Entering Space).

Thanks to everyone who participated, and thanks to Dr. Zubrin for taking the time to respond. If you had fun with this, let me know if there’s anyone else you’d like to throw questions at, and maybe I can track them down.

If you’re interested in the goal of sending humans to Mars, I highly recommend you take a look at the Mars Society, which Robert Zubrin is the President. Click here to visit their website.

1. Dave Mitsky: What do you feel is the most dangerous aspect of the Mars Direct plan?

Zubrin: The ascent from Mars in the Earth Return Vehicle (ERV). The liftoff from Mars followed by trans-Earth injection only requires about half the delta-V as the outbound trip, but there will be much fewer people there to monitor it. So we need really good automated health maintenance and monitoring equipment on the ERV, allowing the launch to be effectively controlled from Earth.

2. Eli: What do you think should be done to make sure a manned Mars mission will not be a “take a photo and not come back for 3 decades” mission ala Apollo?

Zubrin: The problem with Apollo was twofold; that it was the creature of the political class, and the basis upon which it was sold to much of the political class. When it achieved its stated Cold War objective, the elites were then free to dismantle it, as there was no organic space movement with a deeper goal around to sustain it.

We need to make sure that the Mars program is created with the stated goal of opening a new world for humanity, and we need to organize a grassroots movement that supports it and sustains it on that basis.

Black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglas once said “Emancipation would lose half its value were it won by the efforts of white men alone.” He was right. We need to make sure that the Mars program is OUR program, and not THEIR program.

3. Josh: What feedback have the people in power – the government or NASA – given to your ideas?

Zubrin: Many people at the NASA field centers have become supporters of Mars Direct. Some of the headquarters crowd still opposes it as they oppose any destination driven orientation that would force NASA to abandon its constituency-driven method of spending and provide a metric against which results could be measured.

4. exAstro: If it comes down to a cost/benefit analysis we’ll probably never go to Mars- at least by current thinking. So- how do we move beyond that mindset? What would prompt the ultimate decision makers (purse holders) to decide that it’s in “our” best interest to go to Mars? I assume that the technology is not at issue.

Zubrin: I dispute the premise of the question. A cost-benefit analysis demands that we abandon the wasteful Shuttle-era approach of constituency driven spending and return to the highly productive destination driven Apollo era approach.

NASA spending is now 90% of the average Apollo era (1961-1973) level. We spent as much on NASA, in real inflation-adjusted dollars, between 1990 and 2003 as we did between 1961 and 1973. But compare the results. Between 1961-1973 we went from near zero space capability to fly Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Ranger, Mariner, Surveyor, Pioneer Jupiter; we developed hydrogen/oxygen rocket engines, multi-staged heavy lift launch vehicles, in space life support systems, spacesuits, soft landing techniques, lunar rovers, RTGs, space nuclear reactors, nuclear rocket engines, reentry techniques, interplanetary navigation and communication technologies; we built the Deep Space Network, Johnson Space Center, JPL (in the sense it exists today), the Cape Canaveral launch complex, and we inspired a generation of youth to enter science and engineering.

In contrast, between 1990 and 2003 we flew about three-score STS missions, launched and repaired Hubble, launched half a dozen lunar or planetary probes (compared with over 40 for 61-73), and launched a space station which is still less capable than Skylab. So the mission productivity was much less, but the technology return was even worse; as a result of the lack of any forcing function, NASA, despite its claim to be focussing on technology development, developed NO significant new space technologies during the 1990-2003 period, built no new infrastructure, and failed to inspire youth in any way remotely comparable to that it achieved in the sixties.

So if the question is; how do we assure the taxpayers of a real return on their space dollar, there is only one answer; Give NASA a job that is worthy of a $16 billion/year space agency. Assign it the task of sending humans to Mars within a decade.