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The reasons for sending humans to Mars must be different from those developed a half-century ago for going to the Moon. (credit: NASA)

Sunlight and shadow: putting people on Mars

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The fifth annual Humans to Mars Summit, recently concluded in Washington DC, was an interplanetary tour-de-force. Produced by the international not-for-profit Explore Mars, Inc., the conference gathered distinguished panels representing multiple national space agencies, industrial titans, academic experts, the moon-walking Dr. Buzz Aldrin (who belongs in a category of his own), and others. Overall, the participants discussed and opined on the myriad of technological, psychological, physiological, and political challenges presented by the epic goal of landing a human mission on Mars by the mid 2030s.

Listening to the back-and-forth, one inescapable theme began to emerge. The effort to send people to Mars suffers from a difficult duality: at once trying to bask in the still-sunny glow of Project Apollo, while simultaneously escaping its long shadow. Our struggle with the centuries-old allure of the Red Planet would benefit by examining both Apollo’s unlikely genesis and stamina, and it’s failure to spawn direct offspring.

Apollo was funded, year after year, until the goal—men on the Moon by the end of the decade—was achieved. But the circumstances that sustained the pursuit of that goal were unique—geopolitics, fear and Camelot.

The first part of the duality—basking in the glow—is unsurprising. Apollo is the gold standard. It has become a ubiquitous metaphor in our culture for great achievement, daring, and tenacity. Even so, with the passage of half a century, it’s easy to miss just how daring Apollo was at the time. It was immensely ambitious. When President John Kennedy first proposed the moon landing program in May 1961 before a joint session of Congress, only 58 years had passed since the first controlled human flight at Kitty Hawk. Jet powered flight was barely 20 years old, and large-scale rocketry newer still. Perhaps most significant, at the time of this first public pronouncement that America would send men to the Moon, the United States could boast a mere 15 minutes of human spaceflight, all of it thanks to Alan Shepard’s solo flight aboard his tiny Mercury 7 capsule.

Why would the president announce such a risky, costly and dubious endeavor, and what can we learn from it? After all, landing people on the Moon—by the end of the 1960s no less, a mere nine years away—didn’t just seem like science fiction to the general public. Even within America’s space agency, there were grave doubts.

Kennedy, too, seemed to understand the challenge of a sustained effort so in his “Moon speech” he cautioned the Congress against timidity. “If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all,” he said. “Because it [the Moon program] is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful.”

It worked. Apollo was funded, year after year, until the goal—men on the Moon by the end of the decade—was achieved. But the circumstances that sustained the pursuit of that goal were unique—geopolitics, fear and Camelot. They have not been duplicated, and are unlikely to be in pursuit of the Red Planet. We need to understand them in order to liberate ourselves of the notion that they can be reproduced.

First, the quest for advantage in the Cold War struggle with the Soviets took priority. Indeed, in a 1962 meeting with James Webb where the NASA administrator was outlining the scientific prospects of Project Apollo, Kennedy brushed him off. “This [the space program] is important for political reasons, international political reasons,” the president said. “And this is, whether we like it or not, an intensive race.”

This focus is further demonstrated by Kennedy’s very different attitude just two months before his 1961 Moon speech. His predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, had mothballed the design studies needed to launch NASA’s long-range plans, drafted in 1959, which included the development of monstrous new rockets, the Saturn and Nova family of boosters, along with a new spacecraft and a permanent near-Earth space station to serve as a jumping off point for exploration of the Moon sometime after 1970. The latter two elements, the spacecraft and space station, were already being called Project Apollo inside NASA. In March 1961, Webb and George Low, Chief of the Manned Space Flight Office, met with the new president to secure his approval for the development of the Apollo spacecraft and new rockets. Despite their pleas, Kennedy was unmoved. The next day, he decided to shelve NASA’s long-term vision and the Apollo spacecraft, just as Eisenhower had, but he did green-light the development of new rockets. Events, however, would force his hand.

The second reason for the tenacity that made Apollo possible was not just that space was a new front in the Cold War, but that on this front America was losing badly. The Soviet Union had orbited Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957. The fear this generated in the United States was profound and widespread. It led to both the formation of The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the transformation of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics into the more technically and bureaucratically muscular National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

But the question persists: are the romance of exploration, the Earthly returns on scientific discovery, and the vague yearning to be an interplanetary species sufficient to propel forward such a vast, risky, and expensive enterprise?

But what really moved Kennedy was another dazzling triumph for Moscow, less than three weeks after his decision to mothball Apollo. On April 12, 1961, Soviet Air Force Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space and the first to orbit the Earth. It was a stunning display of Soviet scientific and engineering prowess, and a feat that the United States would be unable to match for nearly a year. Now, Kennedy was on the spot. He called Webb back for another meeting, with a substantially more urgent tone. “Is there any place we can catch them? What can we do? Tell me how to catch up,” the president demanded. As a follow up to this, on April 20 Kennedy wrote a memorandum to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, asking Johnson to investigate several questions and report back quickly: “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the Moon, or by a rocket to land on the Moon, or by a rocket to go to the Moon and back with a man? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?”

Johnson consulted rocket scientist Werner Von Braun, who had been spirited away from Germany after World War II. Von Braun told him on April 29 that with an “all-out crash program” he thought America could land a crew on the moon before the Russians. This recommendation led to Kennedy’s “Moon speech” before Congress less than a month later.

JFK speech
John F. Kennedy giving his famous speech in May 1961 calling for a human mission to the Moon by the end of the decade. (credit: NASA)

Then, Kennedy was assassinated and Apollo became part of Camelot. This added a new emotional ingredient, which, when combined with fear of Soviet supremacy in space, and the broader context of Cold War geopolitics (including the military aspect to rocketry which was also forwarded by the space program) were sufficient to power Apollo through successive federal budget wars, and even to survive the calamity of the fatal Apollo 1 fire. Although America subsequently fulfilled great aspirations, including the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and a fleet of robotic spacecraft buzzing about the solar system, the big prize—humans on Mars—remains an ambition unrequited.

To mark the 20th anniversary of Armstrong and Aldrin’s lunar landing, on July 20, 1989, another president, George H. W. Bush, laid out a bold plan to send Americans back to the moon and on to Mars. The plan was called the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) and was based at least in part on a 1987 report by a task force led by former astronaut Dr. Sally Ride which called for a permanent lunar base by 2010 and a human mission to the Red Planet in the early 21st Century. None of it happened. Within a few short years, after cost estimates—some $500 billion—were promulgated, SEI was grounded.

Fifteen years after that bold announcement, in 2004, another President Bush announced a similarly ambitious plan—footprints on the Moon and Mars enabled by giant new rockets and new spacecraft. The whole effort was called Project Constellation, and for a time it seemed like a reboot of Apollo. But George W. Bush’s interplanetary ambitions, like his father’s, came to nothing.

President Obama scrapped Constellation in 2010. He had no interest either in the Moon or in continuing development of a heavy-lift rocket or the Orion capsule. Congress did not see it that way and so the administration was obliged to continue development a variant of Constellation’s Ares 5 rocket (unimaginatively renamed the Space Launch System) and Orion spacecraft. Today, both of these elements figure prominently in virtually everyone’s prospective architecture for putting people on Mars, with the notable exception of SpaceX’s Elon Musk.

In the 1960s, international and domestic politics thrust Apollo forward. Those elements were lacking in the 1990s and 2000s, and so Mars projects quickly fizzled when faced with the need to pay the bills. In 2017, what do Mars boosters have to latch onto? The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 is certainly an encouraging endorsement of human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit. While it may be a reflection of simple bravado on the part of a new administration, it is perhaps a product of more sober calculations on the part of Congress.

But the question persists: are the romance of exploration, the Earthly returns on scientific discovery, and the vague yearning to be an interplanetary species sufficient to propel forward such a vast, risky, and expensive enterprise? Our history suggests the answer is no. The international character that such an endeavor must have also complicates matters: international partners mitigate costs but also slow the process and add complexity to the politics. To be sure, there’s a resounding model of global success in the ISS, and this partnership forms a useful basis for any project of future human spaceflight into the solar system.

But there is perhaps one more compelling case to be made for Mars. We live in turbulent times.

But whereas the ISS has a clear legacy for future human exploration of Mars, Apollo was a dead end. That Project Apollo culminated with the footprints of 12 Americans pressed into the lunar regolith is a dramatic gesture to be sure, but in the end, such a bold endeavor was ultimately unsatisfying since no followon exploration imbued it with sustained meaning. Instead, it was a point in time, a singular achievement. President Bush recognized this limitation when he launched the ill-fated SEI, saying that the US would go back to the Moon, “and this time, back to stay.”

Thus, there is the need for champions of humans on Mars to escape Apollo’s shadow. “Flags and footprints” were sufficient to satisfy Cold War objectives and bolster Camelot. But in a more complex era, flags and footprints are not enough. In his speech announcing SEI, President Bush noted that while Apollo was born from Cold War crisis, his program had more genteel roots. “Today we don’t have a crisis; we have an opportunity,” the president said. But in that distinction, perhaps more than any other, lay the success of Apollo and the failure of SEI.

No burning national question underlies the pursuit of Mars, as it did the Moon landings, though some bubble beneath the surface. Putting a significant number of people on Mars is, for example, Musk’s answer to the problem of human extinction on Earth, whether the result of human folly or a civilization-terminating asteroid lurking in our neighborhood. In addition, the military applications of a Mars project could help to drive such an effort forward, in much the same way that the Pentagon’s pursuit of more reliable, capable rocketry in the 1960s helped Apollo along. Most of the other reasons to go to Mars are some variant of “inspiring humanity.” While this is indeed true, such inspiration does not often translate into Congressional funding, and budget appropriations are the true language of government. Moreover, whatever private sector energy exists for Mars—and there’s plenty—that energy won’t achieve its potential without significant and sustained government funding.

But there is perhaps one more compelling case to be made for Mars. We live in turbulent times. Nationalism and ethnic tribalism are resurgent, while the internationalism that has built the modern world is under pressure, if not in retreat. Our survival as a civilization, and perhaps as a species, depends of the ability of global partners joining forces to tackle global problems. Decades ago, in the early days of planning for what would become the ISS, NASA’s Robert Freitag saw meaningful international cooperation as essential both to building a space station and also for issues in the long term. It is “important for us to learn to work together on a high-technology project of this scope because someday in might be really important for us to know how to work together,” he said. “Whether it’s a ballistic missile kind of thing, or saving the environment, or I don’t know what, sometime we’re going to have to work together on a real important thing like a large program.”

He was right. Many of the problems we now face are bigger than any one nation—even leviathans like America and China—can manage on their own. The proliferation of orbital debris, the need for a planetary defense against near Earth objects, and mitigating the effects of climate change are only a few obvious problems that the world needs to solve and coordinated efforts in space can help. The ISS is an inspiring example of how we might approach these problems using international cooperation on a scale more commonly associated with war. Despite significant terrestrial tensions that have risen between them over the course of the ISS partnership, Russia and the West continue to cooperate effectively in orbit. Seen through this lens, it seems clear that a global Mars project would serve humanity well, not just in its own fulfillment, but in the level of diplomatic, scientific, industrial, and technical cooperation required along the way. The fruits of such an enormous undertaking in each of these categories, like the technological fruits of Apollo, would ultimately return the investment to taxpayers many times over while at the same time improving life on Earth.

The public needs a better understanding of the threats we face and the opportunities that a robust global space effort, including a human Mars project, offers to help mitigate these threats.

What’s more, if America wants to retain its leadership position in space, it needs to pay the freight. The gap between what NASA is asked to do and the money the space agency is allocated to do it must narrow, and some measure of certainty must be built into its long-term planning. Space systems and operations take time to design, test and build. Constant budget uncertainty and policy zig-zags waste both time and money, and we don’t really know how much time we have. With regard to the problems of orbital debris and planetary defense, for example, we don’t know if we have ten years, a hundred, or a thousand. If we plan for a thousand but only have ten, we’re in trouble. The same is true for becoming a multi-planet civilization. The ruins of the Colosseum or Rome’s massive aqueducts are a reminder that technology does not necessarily trend in one direction indefinitely. While we have the capacity to send people out into the solar system, we should.

Looking at the challenges we face and the resources we have, a realistic floor should be created for a meaningful national space program, including human spaceflight. In 2017, a space budget at four percent of federal outlays makes no sense (though that could change quickly if a space rock with our name on it wandered into view), but the administration and the Congress should find a better way to budget for long-term space operations. Since the US spends as much as the rest of the world combined on space, doing so also gives America more moral authority to induce greater spending, if incremental, from international partners.

Moreover, the machines we now fly through space have become inextricably linked with many aspects of modern life on land, sea, and air. They have made us safer, better fed, and immeasurably more knowledgeable about our own world, our neighbors in the solar system, and the great expanse beyond. Billions of people already rely directly on space-based assets in one way or another for weather forecasting, communications, financial transactions, the food they eat, and the timely arrival of other products that are a part of daily life. A failure to maintain and protect the systems in place and to plan for the next generation of robotic and human spacecraft puts these assets at greater risk. Losing our capabilities in space means losing on the ground as well.

The public needs a better understanding of the threats we face and the opportunities that a robust global space effort, including a human Mars project, offers to help mitigate these threats. If, for example, the United States understood a potentially lethal Earthly foe as little as we understand the near Earth object threat, it would be considered a national emergency. American politics commonly demonstrates that voters are often more motivated by fear of loss than hope of gain. Therefore, failing to account for both gain and loss and then to communicate these properly to the public endangers our entire enterprise in space and perhaps on the ground too.

Building an effective policy to meet the world’s challenges in space, including building a sustained human presence on Mars, is less about rockets and spacecraft and more about leadership and determination. That leadership must result in a realistic and effective plan supported by the political, technical and monetary resources necessary to accomplish it over a sustained period of time. Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia, and the United States have all done this with the ISS. To achieve bigger and even more pressing goals, they will have to rekindle Apollo’s sunny glow while stepping out of its shadow. They must grow the ISS family to include more partners and better communicate to their peoples both the risks and rewards that await us in space.