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Mars astronaut
Getting humans to Mars might require an effort by the private sector, rather than national governments. (credit: NASA)

The Mars Consortium 2011

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What we need to first establish is the “why” of sending humans to Mars. In the past, the only comparison we have is when the US government sent men to the Moon 40 years ago. This vast project was completed for achieving one main purpose: beating the Russians by proving US technology was superior, and winning a battle in the Cold War. Forty years later, in a much-changed world, the challenge of sending humans to Mars has lacked a similar driving force and, as a result, has languished on the fringes of political and private priorities for decades.

I hear many space enthusiasts wonder why their governments can’t recapture that same “can do” spirit of the Apollo era today, while they ignore how much our world has changed in that time and, therefore, remain “out of sync” with current priorities and issues. If we are to achieve a human program for Mars, it has to be motivated by 2011 priorities, not 1969 priorities.

If and when we head to Mars, it will be for completely different reasons than ever before.

The priorities of today, in a global commercial world without many boundaries, are about trade, financial survival, and prosperity as nations compete with each other to “corner the market” in one area or another. From solving unemployment problems to dealing with issues like the global financial crisis, global warming, terrorism, and averting an energy crisis, our leaders have their hands more than full with a wide array of pressing issues. If we are to expect that our political leaders and systems should somehow replicate what happened on the Moon 40 years ago without regard to all of these other issues, we have our heads in the sand, and it time space advocates took their heads out of the sand and looked at reality.

I am a pragmatist, and that means to achieve the goal I will consider all options on the table, not just my own romantic notions of “this is how it was in the past so this is how it should be now”. I want to see humans on Mars in our time, but for this to happen we first need to understand that this is not the Apollo era. Those rules do not apply and there can be no similarities.

If and when we head to Mars, it will be for completely different reasons than ever before. Those reasons have been mentioned by Mars advocates before, from the quest to find life on Mars to securing a second home for humanity, the reasons are sound and logical. But they are not enough to drive governments or anyone else to fund this sort of program. This is proven by a conversation President John F. Kennedy had with NASA administrator James Webb back in 1962, where he explained what he really felt about the space program:

I’m not that interested in space. I think its good [to explore space], I think we ought to know about it, we're ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we're talking about fantastic expenditures. We've wrecked our budget, and all the other domestic programs. And the only justification for it, in my opinion to do it [on this schedule] is because we hope to beat [the Russians], to demonstrate that starting behind, and we did, by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.

James Webb was trying to gain more funding for wider space science programs but Kennedy was very adamant that the program stay with only one focus in mind: beating Russia to the Moon. In JFK’s mind the only way to justify the “fantastic expenditures” of sending man to the Moon is if it met a very important strategic goal for the US national security interest, something a paranoid population could easily understand at the height of the Cold War. In JFK’s mind all other space priorities could be held off to “another time”. I am sure Webb and others would have preferred a more visionary outlook, but this has always been the conflict between the science community and its government sponsors. It is simply not in the government interest to do large space projects like the Moon or Mars unless they perfectly fit some strategic objective that will meet some goal or other that they highly desire to reach (as with Apollo). Similarly, the ISS was built to keep Russian scientists employed on benign space programs rather than being sold off to use their talents for enemies of the US, so another strategic decision is served.

In this context, the question is what possible strategic objective does sending humans to a planetary body hundreds of millions of kilometers away serve for the US or any other government? Yes, some say that colonization, land, resources, and the like would be important to governments. However, it is far cheaper to change some policies related to those topics here on Earth than to create a settlement on another planet to achieve those aims, especially if you are paying thousands of dollars per kilogram to space just to get there and back. Even if colonization was possible, how would governments justify the incredible transportation costs to a war-weary, debt-laden public?

Let’s think it through logically:

  1. Can humans get to Mars and return back safely?
  2. What are the health implications of long-term stays on Mars required for settlement to be viable?
  3. How can such a program be sustained at such ridiculously high transport costs and with changing administrations and priorities?
  4. What is the economic benefit of sending humans to Mars or keeping them there?

Back in 1961, when JFK made the announcement to head to the Moon, the US debt-to-GDP ratio was a little over 50 percent, but today in 2011 it is about 100 percent and still growing. In a post-Cold-War world, the new priorities have become global trade and national security of a different kind than in the Apollo days. Back then the goal was to prove democracy and capitalism were more powerful and superior to Communism through programs that demonstrated this superiority as the world chose between two systems.

Simply sending some crewed missions to Mars for flags and footprints will not work in this time. The public is wiser now and want more bang for their buck.

The Apollo program perfectly demonstrated both technological and financial superiority and history started to bend towards democracy and capitalism. But in 2011, where the threat of Islamic and domestic terrorism is the most pressing national security need for many Western nations, sending people to Mars would do nothing to defeat these ideologies. A demonstration of technological superiority such as sending a crew to Mars would do nothing to stop these threats.

Maybe the question we need to ask is, “What kind of projects do Western governments spend large dollars on in 2011?” If we stick strictly to science and technology, research into global warming, enhancing food crops, curing diseases like cancer, water creation/supply technologies, energy, information technology and the Internet, and transportation and infrastructure projects top the list. The public can understand the priority of these areas as they have clear and direct benefits once achieved. The cost involved in running such programs is easily justified and rarely objected to. The same cannot be said if we were to expect governments to fund a human to Mars mission.

With debt levels sky-high, with world financial crises growing, and with increasing numbers of unemployed, spending money on a megaproject very few understand or see benefits from is never going to rate as very important to politicians unless they can sufficiently justify it to the public. This is why simply sending some crewed missions to Mars for flags and footprints will not work in this time. The public is wiser now and want more bang for their buck. Trying to imitate the Apollo missions on Mars as an end in itself would likely result in the end of the space program as the only result would be even more public debt for many economies.

No, this new program will need to be sustainable, and to do that, much cheaper forms of space travel will be needed. This brings up the subject of cheap access to space, or CATS for short. Within the context of a human program to Mars, funding for the development of a generation of cheaper space vehicles could be enabled with wide public support. It becomes both a publicity event and solving the biggest barrier to our progress into a space economy—the cost of flights.

Whatever vehicles are ultimately chosen to reduce the cost of space access, they will require large-scale spending over a sustained period, and this raises another question: why don’t governments just start spending the money on these new vehicles and be done with it? Why do they need a Mars program to make this happen?

It comes down to what the public will accept and make sense of. Right now, the new “Flexible Path” that President Obama put NASA upon is very close to this goal of developing cheap space access, except that it fails to more heavily direct funding to new space vehicle concepts, and so is more of a hand-waving attempt at present. If a program to send humans to Mars was announced, with the dual aim of creating cheap space access, it would be something that can be sustained in the long term and would bring wide inclusion of the private sector.

But there is a lot of “ifs” in here. Making a government do anything is mostly pointless without mass public support. So the challenge is, can the Mars advocacy movement present a sufficiently robust financial proposal to the public that will gain their widespread support in pushing governments and the private sector to Mars?

The goal of the consortium should be to get a crew to Mars in the shortest possible time, to beat governments to that goal, and, by doing so, to awaken many governments and their populations as to their weaknesses.

This is hard to say. Even if the argument was 100-percent financially sound, if would be futile if we cannot grab the public on an emotional level. This is where Hollywood could help. With celebrity power and the entertainment sector behind this program, wide public support would grow. On the other hand, some notes that people are very fickle these days and what is of interest today can be forgotten tomorrow, so could this type of interest and support be sustained?

By now you can see what a quagmire gaining public support or government funding can be. This is why for several years I have been working on a concept called “The Mars Consortium”. The advantage of this concept is that it takes the cost issue out of the equation by involving the private sector as mission lead. It does not mean that the private sector pays for everything, as that is unrealistic, but it does mean that they lead the way and work with governments where possible in partnership to send humans to Mars and permanently reduce the cost of space access.

This, then, is a framework for how this might all start. SpaceX has the cheapest large rockets available today and any human mission to Mars within a private/public consortium would do well to focus their plans on this company at this time. They provide access to the cheapest space transportation means at present.

The goal would be to first organize a gathering of potential consortium partners to discuss a framework for moving ahead and what the specific strategy would be to get humans to Mars quickly and with the twin benefit of making space access cheaper. Their goal should be to get a crew to Mars in the shortest possible time, to beat governments to that goal, and, by doing so, to awaken many governments and their populations as to their weaknesses. That first mission would need to be cheap and light but also ensure that a long-term program was the objective. If it could be kept below $5 billion, it’s likely a profit could be made from that first mission.

By selling two crew spots to governments for $2 Billion a piece, and by selling rock samples to science organizations across the world, by gaining private corporate sponsors and media rights and merchandising tie-ins, the profit of this mission could easily be above 20 percent in real terms, along with the technological marketing and self-promotion this would produce for companies involved over the long haul.

Of course, this would not be without challenges. One of the biggest is the lack of entry, descent, and landing systems. Another is how to create artificial gravity for the Mars trip, while still another is launching from the surface of Mars. If the private sector takes this on, they will need to be ultra-pragmatic. Instead of trying to land massively heavy loads on Mars with exotic new landing and drag systems, they will need to keep their landing vehicles light and small, with inflatable habitation modules and rovers to explore with.

Recently Robert Zubrin proposed a low-cost SpaceX derived mission to Mars with only two crew members (see “A transorbital railroad to Mars”, The Space Review, May 23, 2011). With some modifications this mission could be expanded to include two more crew, the addition of an inflatable transit module and surface hab, and the incorporation of artificial gravity spin and extra radiation shielding to protect the crew. With launch costs of $100–200 million, this mission could be completed with around eight launches of a Falcon Heavy. This is something the private sector can now consider, and should consider.

The benefits of going to Mars and creating cheap space access can be started in our time, perhaps in the next five to ten years. We now have at least one viable private launch provider in SpaceX, so the solution to “how” do we get to Mars is there. Governments will no doubt fund some large-scale programs later, but if the private sector can demonstrate something as history making as sending a crew to Mars and back, even one time, this will forever change how we think about space projects and how they should be funded and why.

The technology and the intellect required to make this voyage to Mars and back is already here, today, in 2011. It’s now time we took that next step to Mars, and all that will mean for our space future.

In space we do have a universe of knowledge, exploration, resources and potential waiting for us, a truly new “frontier” for humanity to tap into. By finding solutions that make economic sense, this frontier will be opened to us, and in the context of a popular Mars mission suddenly the spotlight would be on space and all things space-related as never before. Sending humans to Mars does not have to derail cheap space access, nor it does not have to drain taxpayers. It can be done privately, cost effectively and, most of all, soon.

Space exploration and development can become the “game changer” for our wounded economies and societies as it opens up a universe of resources to us in a world of shrinking resources. The world of 2011 is different in regards to this topic, but we also live in a time where solutions are available if we have the will to go. Surely there are private entities with the money and the will to want to do this?

The fact is that there are many crewed Mars mission designs available today, from Wernher von Braun’s original concepts to our own MarsDrive Mission design 2.5 and many NASA Design Reference Missions in between. Yes, radiation is a problem, landing is a problem, lack of gravity is a problem, dust is a problem, and more. None of these are sho stoppers today, though. We have enough brilliant minds around to overcome these issues or at the least mitigate their impact on the crew. In the end, I have found there is one similarity between a proposed human mission to Mars and the Apollo missions: its huge symbolic nature. If done from the private sector it will make a statement all governments will hear: the private sector is here, and it is capable.

In 2004, for a budget many dozens of times less than what NASA would likely have spent, Burt Rutan put a man into suborbital space. In the years since then Bigelow has successfully launched and orbited two test modules of its inflatable habitats in Earth orbit and SpaceX has successfully launched a Dragon cargo/crew capsule into orbit. These are all private sector efforts, and all done for far less than NASA or government contracts could have accomplished. The technology and the intellect required to make this voyage to Mars and back is already here, today, in 2011. It’s now time we took that next step to Mars, and all that will mean for our space future.