America’s enthusiasm for manned missions to Mars is on the upswing. NASA has just released a new animation of the Space Launch System, the rocket that it says will get us to the red planet. NASA head Charles Bolden told a Humans to Mars Summit in Washington on May 5th that “a clear plan to make” a manned Mars mission “happen is starting to take shape.” Four days after the Summit ended, Explore Mars, the group behind the event, announced enthusiastically that, “We now have an existence proof that humans can land on Mars in the 2030’s and do so without massive budget increases.” Meanwhile the Planetary Society, a group originally co-founded by Carl Sagan and now headed by Bill Nye the Science Guy, is also turning its attention to a manned Mars mission.
But there’s a fly in the ointment. Both the Explore Mars and the Planetary Society’s Mars plans rely on the same launch vehicle, the same rocket-to-space. That vehicle is the Space Launch System, the Frankenrocket cobbled together by congressmen and senators to provide jobs to their districts. Says the Space Development Steering Committee’s R.D. Boozer, author of The Plundering of NASA, “At two billion dollars or more per launch, the Space Launch System, known to space insiders as the Senate Launch System, will make a Mars mission impossible.” Explains John Strickland, chief analyst for the Space Development Steering Committee, “A Mars mission would take at least twelve launches. That’s a cost of at least $24 billion just to get equipment and humans into space. And at a launch rate of one liftoff every two years, just getting the material for a Mars mission into Earth orbit would take a minimum of 24 years.”
But that’s not the end of the bad news for a manned Mars mission using the Space Launch System. Boozer points to a meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council in August of 2014 where a few little-known facts emerged. First, the Advisory Council concluded that NASA’s plan for a manned Mars mission “was not executable because of its cost.” In other words, “NASA is developing a plan that is not executable.” In fact, NASA’s Mars program based on the Space Launch System was so impossible that, according to Space Policy Online, NASA Advisory Council member Tom Young, “said he felt that ‘we are collectively perpetrating a fraud’ by pretending the program is executable.” What’s worse, “Young said he worries that the country will spend $160 billion on human spaceflight over the next 20 years and be only ‘negligibly closer’ to landing humans on Mars.” $160 billion is a massive amount of money. Especially for a program guaranteed to fail.
Why are current Mars plans so outrageously impossible? Because of the costs and impracticalities of the Space Launch System. One of those impracticalities emerged in the NASA Advisory Council meeting from Council Chairman Steve Squyres. Space Policy Online explains, “Squyres has been a leader in stressing that launching SLS at a rate of one every 2-3 years is very risky because launch teams cannot maintain proficiency at such a low launch rate.” In other words, at the once-every-two-years launch rate forced by the Space Launch System, ground crews will get out of practice. And that fact will make the Space Launch System a dangerous rocket to fly.
How frequent must flights be to maintain proficiency? Says Space Policy Online, “Bill Ballhaus, a past President of the Aerospace Corporation, which oversees Air Force launches of the Atlas V and Delta IV, said that…a rate of four per year is needed to maintain expertise.”
Is there a solution? Is there a realistic way to get Americans to Mars? Says the Space Development Steering Committee’s Boozer, “Yes. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a program called the Mars Colonial Transport. Development and launch of a SpaceX rocket costs a fraction of the Space Launch System. And SpaceX rockets have proven to be safe.” In fact, Elon Musk has a vision of a Mars program, one that takes humans by the tens of thousands to cities on the red planet. And Musk is currently executing his plan. What’s more, Musk’s Mars plan is slated to be the subject of an eight-part TV miniseries helmed by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.
“Meanwhile,” Boozer points out, “Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is also developing advanced and inexpensive rocket engines. If someone is going to get us to Mars, that someone is going to come from the private sector.”
Kelly Dickerson, NASA CHIEF: We’ll see American boots on Martian soil by the 2030s, Business Insider, May 7, 2015
Explore Mars, The 2015 Humans To Mars Summit: A Tremendous Success! press release, May 11, 2015
Manned Mars Mission Plan: Astronauts Could Orbit by 2033, Land by 2039, April 2, 2015
Marcia S. Smith, Future of NASA’s Human Spaceflight Program Dominates NAC Meeting, Space Policy Online, July 30, 2014
NASA’s Marshall Center, Feel the Power of America’s Next Great Rocket, June 9, 2015