Elon Musk has revealed an audacious plan to get hundreds of people to Mars beginning in 2025. What role should NASA play to make sure Musk’s plan becomes a reality? If NASA ditches its own totally impractical and unaffordable Mars plan, can it help Musk get Americans to Mars ten years earlier than any previous plan has dared? Can it collaborate with Musk on Mars? Yes. If NASA adopts the role of infrastructure builder.
NASA currently spends three billion dollars a year to develop the rocket that will never fly—the Space Launch System, known in the space industry as the Senate Launch System because it was designed to produce the maximum pork and the minimum practicality. That three billion dollars can be better spent elsewhere, says The Space Development Steering Committee.
Elon Musk’s Mars plan depends on a monster rocket that WILL fly, a rocket with 42 engines and three times the lifting power of the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon. Musk’s plan also depends on a hellaciously roomy spaceship able to carry one hundred passengers at a time, to give them elite accommodations for the six-month trip to the red planet, and to land those passengers safely on the surface of the fourth planet from the sun. With a bit of alteration, copies of that same spaceship, in Musk’s plan, will be configured as tankers, carrying 100 tons of rocket fuel into orbit, and acting as massive fueling stations in space.
What’s the role of NASA in all of this? Or will NASA simply be brushed aside? John Strickland, chief analyst for the Space Development Steering Committee, sees NASA as vital. Why? Though Musk is planning on implementing his Mars program almost totally on his own, he will do better if he gets some help. In his explanation of his Mars plan in Guadalajara, Mexico, on September 27, Musk did not mention the use of any in-space infrastructure or of any infrastructure on the Martian surface. And infrastructure will be a necessity.
Here are a few of the things Strickland thinks will be needed before the first of Musk’s giant Mars transports lands. These are the elements of a permanent space transportation and housing infrastructure which, in Strickland’s opinion and in the view of the Space Development Steering Committee, should become a new mission for NASA.
Find a Mars location rich in subsurface ice, the source of the water that Musk’s passengers will need to drink, the source of the oxygen that Musk’s passengers will need to breathe, and the source of the rocket fuel Musk’s mega-Mars cruisers will need to lift off from the Martian surface and return to earth. Pinpoint a location so rich in water that it can serve as the site for a Mars base and later for what Musk has made clear is his long-term goal: a Mars city.
To find that water, says Strickland, we should, “place a high power and high vertical resolution radar instrument in Mars orbit to find large ice deposits as close to the surface and as close to the Mars equator as possible.”
But Strickland foresees the need for more. He says, “Put a set of small, dedicated GPS satellites in Mars orbit, to allow much more precise landing of vehicles on the surface and enhanced coordinates for specific surface features. These satellites would not have much of a traffic load, so they do not need to be very heavy. A fleet of 15 small satellites are all that is needed.”
With the radar satellites and the GPS satellites in place, says Strickland, identify roughly ten best landing sites, sites that have:
o The aforementioned ice deposit big enough to support a city.
o Enough iron oxide or equivalent in the local rocks for iron and steel production
o More than one area of great scientific interest in the exploration zone radius of 100 kilometers.
o A relatively level area with regolith deep enough to bury crew habitats for a base and an equivalent flat area one or two kilometers away for a landing and takeoff zone.
o All this needs to be done before Musk is ready to pick a site for his base or city.
But there’s more. Strickland continues: “Design, build and launch a set of identical small Mars rovers that can use the GPS guidance to land close to and thus quickly reach each of the proposed landing sites and verify ground truth for the critical values. A Falcon Heavy can launch at least thirteen metric tons toward Mars. This would allow as many as ten identical small rovers to be launched in a batch to Mars so they can each land in a separate location. The small rovers should be mass produced to keep production costs low, and could be based on the designs used for earlier successful rovers like Spirit and Opportunity. With the rovers’ reports from the ground, it will be possible to down-select from the list of potential base sites. Since Musk aims to land his first passengers on Mars in 2025, this exploration with rovers should occur no later than 2022. So we have to get moving.”
That’s not the end of the basics that NASA should take care of. Continues Strickland, “Create a logistics base in Low Mars orbit, a truck stop in space, with propellant depots to refuel rockets and with passenger facilities—rest stops.
“Cooperate with SpaceX, Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Boeing (which says it wants to beat SpaceX to Mars) to send small, 12-25-crew-member exploration teams to the best Mars sites and to build a limited set of about three exploration bases.
“Design and build Mars buggies, pressurized rovers (Mars SUVs), and campers to transport crew members and cargos on exploratory missions. And to allow travel between bases.
“Once SpaceX decides on a site for its Mars settlement, negotiate to buy launch services and to rent space for scientific uses at that base. A single one of Musk’s Mars transports could land hundreds of tons of cargo with a small crew on the surface, enough equipment to create a complete science base that would safely support a science team for years.
“If these bases find sources of critical minerals like hematite for iron, they could eventually be turned into mining bases and lead to further settlements, settlements that would allow the discovery of yet more resources.
“Cooperate with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing to maintain rescue capabilities for all human Mars operations.
“Develop equipment to convert Martian ice into water, oxygen, and rocket fuel. Design and build machines that can suck in the Martian atmosphere’s carbon dioxide and turn it into methane for energy and rocket fuel and carbon for plastics and carbon fiber. Those plastics will allow 3—D printers to print equipment and the components for rovers and bases from scratch. Dennis Bushnell, chief research scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, says that we can derive nearly all the raw materials we need for whatever we want to make from the carbon in the atmosphere of Mars.
“NASA can work with companies like Made In Space, which, in cooperation with NASA, already has two 3-D printers on the International Space Station, to develop printers that can churn out new and replacement parts for Mars bases, Mars transport vehicles, and Mars-based factories.
And, finally, “Develop large scale hydroponics, underground greenhouses, and other agricultural technologies to feed an expanding human population on Mars.”
All of these are crucial activities that SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing are unlikely to generate on their own. All could be developed with the use of the three billion dollars a year that NASA is currently wasting on the Space Launch System. And all can benefit from NASA’s attentions. What’s more, all can make massive contributions to the future of life and of humanity. A future in space.