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Astronaut on Mars
A push to put even a single astronaut on Mars could reinvigorate the US space program and American aerospace industry. (credit: NASA)

Mars as the key to NASA’s future


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The American aerospace industry seems oblivious to a unique business situation that offers the greatest potential in its history for long-term profit. Since the end of the Cold War, our aerospace firms have struggled to remain viable in the face of fickle government contracts, staffing challenges, and foreign competition. America has no shortage of inventors; indeed we may offer the world’s best cradle for innovation, but our aerospace companies are straining to hold on in the global marketplace.

The only potential NASA program with a real ability to capture the enthusiastic support of the American public is a short duration, focused drive to send a human to live permanently on Mars.

It’s tough today for US aerospace companies to maintain a competent technical staff since foreigners (traditionally a major source of new engineers) can now stay home, be educated, and find good jobs without ever leaving their country of birth. Places once called “third world” now support thriving aerospace concerns. Meanwhile, Americans are understandably reluctant to enter a field where long, hard university study qualifies a person for an unstable job with a mediocre salary. Many aerospace professionals circulate around the US like migrant farm workers, employed by whichever firm has the latest military contract. However, it’s costly and difficult to relocate to a new job in a different state every few years. Two-income families are common today so moving requires that a working wife or husband quit their job to follow their spouse. Family assets are usually tied up in relatively illiquid houses that add further complications.

The constantly increasing development time for modern aircraft and military weapon systems typically result in huge program cost increases over original budget estimates. Fears that temperamental, exotic high tech equipment might be inappropriate, or (in the case of armaments), inadequate to counter potential enemies suggest that the business will experience more turbulent times ahead. However, there is one possibility that would guarantee a substantial boom in aerospace and ensure that our country remains in the forefront of modern technology. This opportunity centers on NASA.

The suppliers and contractors that service NASA, both big and small, appreciate the advantages of working for the space agency. The pay is steady, predictable, and programs last for decades. The work is often structured in a manner so contractors can’t lose money! The space agency is poorly funded and obsessed with risk aversion so projects are hardly ever finished on schedule, thus ensuring that contractor profits extend over many years. Projects are often cancelled before they ever reach maturity, so one never really knows if efforts were good enough to succeed.

The only potential NASA program with a real ability to capture the enthusiastic support of the American public is a short duration, focused drive to send a human to live permanently on Mars. The targeted time horizon must be short—perhaps only a decade—so taxpayers in their own lifetime would be able to witness the event they are funding. This effort would salvage the aerospace industry and also breathe life back into the technological malaise that currently affects much of American society.

Unlike the question posed by just what to do with the white-elephant International Space Station, if only one human begins to live on Mars (and the first missions must be one-way trips only) there will be no thought of ever abandoning the colony. In the turbulent 1960s the Apollo program distracted our country from severe social and political problems. In a like manner, a human presence on Mars would captivate the interest of the world and divert attention from the seemingly intractable issues that afflict the current generation on Earth.

Naysayers claim the country can’t afford to send a person to Mars, but they forget we’ve successfully funded expensive space programs before and in tough economic times. Our space agency has relatively few direct government employees and distributes most of its money into the private sector all over the country. Some incorrectly believe that spending on NASA might divert funds from other needy government programs. One thing that keeps wealth in the US from being a “zero sum game” (where for some to win, others must lose) are those scientific developments that enable us to produce more output with less input. NASA is on the tip of this technology spear. Spending on the scientific segment of America is what keeps our standard of living moving ahead in a world of ever-diminishing natural assets.

Some suggest we should wait for better technology to arrive so we can make a human trip to Mars safer. What if Columbus had decided not to travel across the Atlantic until he could go on a steamship?

Rather than some fanciful and inaccurate speculation on what a tiny Mars outpost might cost, we should consider just what the country ought to be willing to spend. Forty years ago, at its peak, the US dedicated close to 1% of its Gross National Product (GNP) to the Apollo Moon landing. This was deemed affordable, in spite of the need to simultaneously fund an expensive war in Vietnam and massive new government welfare programs. In recent years the percent of our GNP that is devoted to space exploration is down in the range of one-quarter of one percent. America should easily be able to devote perhaps half a percent of its GNP each year—that’s just half the cost of Apollo, in a decade-long effort that would provide a permanent human presence on Mars. Such a program would receive enthusiastic, unwavering financial support when the entire world understands that humanity is finally embarked on a dramatic new course out into the universe.

Just like the wildly successful (and profitable) Apollo moon landing effort, the human Mars landing should be an all-American project. Some experts claim that the return on investment (ROI) to the US from new and applied technology acquired during Apollo was as much as ten dollars in public benefit for each dollar our government spent. For a manned Mars program, do we really want to invite other countries to be partners and then have to share the tremendous ROI with them?

The program will require new ways to work with the massively consolidated contractors who now dominate the American aerospace business. NASA can certainly provide better leadership, decision-making, and direction than it has demonstrated in recent years. While the new administrator has brought hope for a renaissance in attitude at NASA, a successful manned Mars program will require superior technical leaders at all levels. We did it before during Apollo with gutsy folks you can read about in the history books, people like Bob Gilruth, Wernher von Braun, George Low, and Gene Krantz.

Today many decision-makers at NASA are business managers, schedulers, ex-astronauts, and systems analysts who are generally unknown and not held in special awe by the engineers who work under them. Indeed why should they be? Most will eventually abandon Civil Service careers for higher-paying jobs with NASA’s own suppliers.

If America discards its hard-won preeminence in human spaceflight, another nation is likely to appreciate the opportunity, take the challenge, go to Mars, and become the new world leader.

Some suggest we should wait for better technology to arrive so we can make a human trip to Mars safer. How very silly! What if Columbus had decided not to travel across the Atlantic until he could go on a steamship? Ironically, the risk of human death for a manned Mars landing is probably in the same order of magnitude as the danger Columbus faced 500 years ago. Today, the knowledge that’s needed to put a hero on Mars either exists right now, or is close at hand. Such a voyage and the founding of an outpost will be very difficult and, in fact, it is just barely possible. That’s one of the exciting attractions of the effort.

The aerospace industry must get behind this concept before it is too late. A permanent human presence on Mars would generate so much new work that the profits would seem as if the fat years of the Cold War had returned. But, this time, instead of building secret weapons that bring us closer to our own destruction, we would work together to expand humanity out into the solar system where we naturally belong.

Either we pursue this effort now and reap enormous benefits, or discouraging scenarios will develop. Our current staff of expert practitioners will disperse, thus squandering the billions of dollars the US has spent over the past 50 years becoming the world leader in human space flight. If we wait a decade or two, the ever-increasing capability of smart robots could well mean that humans will never go to live on another planet. If humanity ceases to dare to explore and move out into a new wilderness, we lose a thing that makes us special and different from all other life. If America discards its hard-won preeminence in human spaceflight, another nation is likely to appreciate the opportunity, take the challenge, go to Mars, and become the new world leader. I hope we do not have to watch that happen.


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