NASA has gone 30 years without a big dream. In disaster's wake, the time has come to aim higher.
By ROBERT ZUBRIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003
Last week, the lives of seven brave astronauts were lost when the space shuttle Columbia broke upon reentry. This has left the nation asking many questions that go well beyond the technical causes of the accident sought by NASA's investigators. Questions like: For what did they die? Was it worth the risk? And perhaps most important, where do we go from here?
For what did they die? There are some who say, not much; the scientific experiments carried aboard the Columbia on her last flight were unremarkable and not worth the loss of any life. While criticism of the science program of STS 107 is valid, this argument is false at its core. STS 107 was not a flight taken in isolation, but as part of an overall space program, and needs to be understood that way. We could have won World War II without taking any particular hill or village one might care to name. Does that mean that the men who fell in those actions died for nothing? Hardly; Joe did not die to liberate Hill 423, but to liberate Europe.
Did Columbia have a purpose of comparable worth? Yes she did. Columbia's cause was the human future.
The Earth is not the only world. There are hundreds of other planetary objects in our own solar system, millions in nearby interstellar space, and hundreds of billions in the galaxy at large. The challenges involved in reaching and settling these new worlds are large, but not beyond human capacity. Should we succeed in becoming spacefarers, we will open up a prospect for a human future that is vast in time and space, and rich in experience and potential to an extent that exceeds the imagination of anyone alive today. When we open the space frontier, we will open the door to the creation of numerous new branches of human civilization, replete with new cultures, new knowledge and epic histories that will add immeasurably to the human story.
This, then, is the cause for which the Columbia crew gave their lives, and its value cannot be doubted. It is thus appropriate that political leaders from across the spectrum have rallied to declare that the recent disaster will not deflect us from our course, and that America will persevere in space.
However it is not enough to continue the quest. We must win it. The American space program, begun so brilliantly in the era of Apollo, has spent the past 30 years without remotely comparable levels of achievement. Indeed, in looking at the space program of the 1960's from the point of view of today, one frequently feels oneself in the same position as a eight-century Italian gazing upon the ruins of imperial Rome and saying to himself in amazement, "We once built that?"
Why was the space program of the Apollo era so more productive than that of today? Was it because of vastly superior funding? In point of fact it was not. NASA's average budget during the period 1961 to 1973, when it built up from near-zero space capability to storm heaven with the Mercury, Gemini, Ranger, Surveyor, Mariner, NERVA, Apollo, and Skylab programs , was $16-billion in 2000 dollars. That is only slightly more than NASA's current $15.5-billion budget. The problem is not lack of money but lack of focus and direction. For the past three decades the U.S. space program has floundered without any central motivating goal. As a result, funds have been spent at a rate comparable to that of the 1960's without producing anything approaching commensurate results.
We need a defining goal to drive our space program forward. At this point of history, that focus can only be the human exploration and settlement of Mars.
Why Mars? Because of all the planetary destinations currently within reach, Mars offers the most, both scientifically, socially, and in terms of what it portends for the future of humankind.
In scientific terms, Mars is critical, because it is the Rosetta Stone for letting us understand the position of life in the universe. Images of Mars taken from orbit show that the planet had liquid water flowing on its surface for a period of a billion years during its early history, a duration five times as long as it took life to appear on Earth after there was liquid water here. So if the theory is correct that life is a natural phenomenon, emergent from chemical complexification wherever there is liquid water, a temperate climate, sufficient minerals, and time, then life should have appeared on Mars. If we can go to Mars, and find fossils of past life on its surface, we will have good reason to believe that we are not alone in the universe. If we send human explorers, who can erect drilling rigs which can reach ground water where Martian life may yet persist, we will be able to examine it, and by so doing determine whether life as we know it on Earth is the pattern for all life everywhere, or alternatively, whether we are simply one esoteric example of a far vaster and more interesting tapestry. These things are worth finding out.
In terms of its social value, Mars is the bracing positive challenge that our society needs. Nations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. The space program itself needs challenge. Consider: between 1961 and 1973, under the impetus of its drive toward the moon, NASA produced a hundred times the rate of technological innovation it has shown since, for essentially the same budget. Why? Because it had a goal that made its reach exceed its grasp. You don't need to develop anything new if you are not doing anything new. Far from being a waste of money, forcing NASA to take on the challenge of Mars is the key to giving the nation a real technological return for its space dollar.
The challenge of a humans-to-Mars program would also be an invitation to adventure to every youth in the country, sending out the powerful clarion call: "Learn your science and you can become part of pioneering a new world." There will be over 100-million kids in our nation's schools over the next 10 years. If a Mars program were to inspire just an extra 1 percent of them to scientific educations, the net result would be 1-million more scientists, engineers, inventors, medical researchers and doctors, making technological innovations that create new industries, finding new medical cures, strengthening national defense, advancing the human condition, and generally increasing national income to an extent that utterly dwarfs the expenditures of the Mars program.
But the most important reason to go to Mars is the doorway it opens for the future. Uniquely among the extraterrestrial bodies of the inner solar system, Mars is endowed with all the resources needed to support not only life but the development of a technological civilization. In contrast to the comparative desert of the Earth's moon, Mars possesses oceans of water frozen into its soil as permafrost, as well as vast quantities of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, all in forms readily accessible to those clever enough to use them. These four elements are the basic stuff not only of food and water, but of plastics, wood, paper, clothing, and most important, rocket fuel. Additionally, Mars has experienced the same sorts of volcanic and hydrologic processes that produced a multitude of mineral ores on Earth. Virtually every element of significant interest to industry is known to exist on the Red Planet. While no liquid water exists on the surface, below ground is a different matter, and there is every reason to believe that geothermal heat sources could be maintaining hot liquid reservoirs beneath the Martian surface today. Such hydrothermal reservoirs may be refuges in which survivors of ancient Martian life continue to persist; they would also represent oases providing abundant water supplies and geothermal power to future human settlers. With its 24-hour day-night cycle and an atmosphere thick enough to shield its surface against solar flares, Mars is the only extraterrestrial planet that will readily allow large-scale greenhouses lit by natural sunlight. Mars can be settled. For our generation and many that will follow, Mars is the New World. In establishing our first foothold on Mars, we will begin humanity's career as a multiplanet species.
Humans to Mars may seem like a wildly bold goal to proclaim in the wake of disaster, yet such a program is entirely achievable. From the technological point of view, we're ready. Despite the greater distance to Mars, we are much better prepared today to send humans to Mars than we were to launch humans to the moon in 1961 when John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to achieve that goal -- and we were there eight years later. Given the will, we could have our first teams on Mars within a decade.
How can this be done? Let us start with the present, with the space program flat on its back. This is what we must do:
First, the shuttle must be restored to flight. NASA must investigate the accident, determine the cause, and eliminate it, along with other possible sources of vulnerability identified in the course of the investigation. This can be done in less than a year, during which time the space station can be supported by Russian Soyuz crew transfer vehicles and Progress supply modules.
Once the shuttle is flying again, its operations should be confined for the foreseeable future to space station orbit, where the crew would have a safe haven, and where Russian capabilities are available for rescue.
There is thus no need to collapse NASA's present program. However, that said, the present program is entirely inadequate to get us anywhere. While we must restore the shuttle to flight as soon as possible because it is all we have, we must replace it as soon as possible because it is obsolete.
The shuttle is obsolete, not simply because it is based on 1970's technology, or because its highly stressed components are becoming worn out with repeated use, but because it is the wrong launch vehicle to support the needs of a visionary space program. In truth, the shuttle is not a space lift vehicle at all; rather, it is a self-launching space station. It is not a truck with a heavy hauling capability, it is a Winnebago whose primary function is to move itself. The shuttle at lift off has the same thrust as a Saturn V moon rocket, yet it has only 15 percent of the payload, because 85 percent of the mass it delivers to orbit is that of the orbiter itself. This is why it is the least efficient payload delivery system ever flown.
It is true that at a time when we had no place to stay on orbit, having a self-launching temporary space habitat made some sense. But now that we have a space station, using the massive shuttle as a means of transferring crew to and from it is wildly suboptimal. We don't need a giant Winnebago to travel to our country home; all we need is a small car. Specifically, what we need is a small crew transfer vehicle, either of the Apollo capsule variety or a mini-shuttle like the proposed Orbital Space Plane, which at a mass 10 percent of the orbiter would be light enough to launch on top of a Delta or Atlas launch vehicle. These expendable launch vehicles cost one-tenth as much as a shuttle launch, and would be safer to ride to orbit as well, since they are modern, brand new every time they are flown, and positioned beneath the payload they are lifting, rather than to its side. Thus if something goes wrong with the booster, (as in the Challenger incident) the crew capsule can get away, and if something should fall from it (as in Columbia), the crew vehicle will not be hit.
However this done, we do not abandon the shuttle launch infrastructure. Rather, by freeing the shuttle launch stack of the orbiter, and giving it a hydrogen/oxygen upper stage instead, we reconfigure it into a true heavy lift launch vehicle capable of duplicating the performance of the Saturn V. With such a system, we could deliver 120 metric tons to low Earth orbit (in place of the current shuttle's 20), or send payloads in the 50-ton class on direct trajectories to the moon or Mars.
Using such a system together with appropriate payload elements which could be readily developed over the next five years, human Mars exploration could begin before this decade is out.
Here's how it could be done: In 2009 we launch a single one of these shuttle-derived heavy lift boosters off the Cape, and use it to throw to Mars an unfueled and unmanned Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) After landing on Mars, the ERV runs a pump to suck in the Martian air -- mostly carbon dioxide -- and reacts this with a small amount of hydrogen brought from Earth to produce a large supply of methane/oxygen rocket propellant. Then, in 2011, another booster is used to shoot the crew out to Mars. Because their return ride is waiting for them on the planet's surface, the crew does not need to fly to Mars in a giant futuristic spaceship. Instead, a basic habitation module would do. The crew lands their hab on Mars in the vicinity of the ERV and use as their house for a year and a half while they explore the Red Planet. At the end of that time they get in the ERV and fly home, leaving the hab behind on Mars. Thus, as one mission follows another, more habs are added to the base, in the process building up mankind's first foothold on a new world.
No great impossible breakthroughs, science fiction futurism or gargantuan technologies are needed to do this. Just some good brass tacks engineering, some 19th century industrial chemistry, and a little bit of moxie. We don't need to spend the next 30 years with a space program mired in impotence, spending large sums of money and taking occasional causalities while the same missions to nowhere are flown over and over again and professional technologists dawdle endlessly in their sand boxes without producing any new flight hardware. We simply need to choose our destination, and with the same combination of vision, practical thinking, and passionate resolve that served us so well during Apollo, do what is required to get there.
If done in a well-managed program, the total development effort cost before the first flight could be kept in neighborhood of $20-billion. After that, each mission by the copy would cost around $2-billion. That's a sum that this country can easily afford. It's small price to pay for a new world. It's a pittance for delivering the birth of a new age in human history.
The Columbia seven are heroes, and the tears of noble men and women will water their graves for many years to come. In the United States, public schools and university engineering buildings will be named after each of the crew members. In Israel, no doubt, Col. Ramon will be remembered, among other ways, by trees planted in his memory.
It is a good custom, I think, the Israeli way of tree-planting. It remembers life by creating life. I believe in this instance, though, we should take it further. To truly honor the Columbia crew, let us resolve not to bend in our efforts until seven trees in their honor can be planted on Mars.
From death let forth life; from tragic loss, victory.
-- Dr. Robert Zubrin, an astronautical engineer and formerly senior engineer with Lockheed Martin, founded Pioneer Astronautics, which does research and development for NASA. He is president of the Mars Society (marssociety.org) and author of The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, published by Simon and Schuster. He wrote this essay for the St. Petersburg Times.