Jul 15 2011

Does Obama Have an Anti-Mars Policy?

Bob Zubrin of the Mars Society is also a nuclear engineer. In a recent Space News op-ed (“The VASIMR Hoax”; 7/11/11), he reports that the Obama administration insists that NASA needs a technology “breakthrough” (e.g., Space News, 7/11/11, P. 8 ) before astronauts can travel safely to Mars. VASIMR is it and “We can’t go to Mars until we have the revolutionary VASIMR, … and once it arrives, all things will be possible.”

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Should Columbus have waited for the 747 to be invented before he went to America?
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Back when I began to hear this need-new-propulsion talking point, I was surprised because it clearly isn’t true. As I mentioned in my decade space forecast in March, 2010:

4. We are the Beneficiaries of 60+ Years of Space Technology Development, and Are Capable of going to Mars, Developing the Moon, and/or Utilizing Space Resources in the Next Decade

We already have the basic technology to go to Mars and ISS can help resolve issues related to long duration human spaceflight before 2020. While advanced propulsion is always preferred on Mars missions, it is not required. Split mission concepts — where return propellants, consumables, and other cargo — are sent first to Mars orbit before the crew leaves Earth improve performance and safety for the crew vehicles. In situ resource utilization is an important technology that is needed to process propellants from water (or other substances) on Phobos and/or Mars. It needs to be developed but is hardly a showstopper.

Great explorations always involve significant risk. The risk must be identified, quantified, managed, and then accepted. In essence, you are ready to go exploring when you think you are.

Columbus and his descendants could have waited until the 747 was invented to make the trip to America — it would have been a lot safer and more comfortable — but they chose to go in 1492. There were many unknowns (a pre-mission cost/benefit analysis was difficult) and the crew suffered casualties, but the mission of exploration was a success and the world was changed.

In their 1963 EMPIRE study for NASA, German rocket scientist Krafft Ehricke and his staff at General Dynamics concluded that “Preliminary schedule analysis strongly indicates that a 1975 (manned) mission…to Mars is in the realm of realistic technological planning…” It was 6 years before the Moon landing, and Krafft Ehricke, Bill Strobl, and the other authors of the document calculated we were nearly ready to go to Mars. …

Zubrin concludes that VASIMR doesn’t hold water in the context of attempted mitigations of either cosmic radiation or zero-g effects en route to Mars. He concludes that the real cost of VASIMR goes beyond its R&D program,

its real cost … is the tens of billions that will be wasted as the human spaceflight program is kept mired in Earth orbit for the indefinite future, accomplishing nothing while waiting for the false vision to materialize …

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