The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Astronaut on Mars
Without a groundswell of public support, neither governments nor investors will feel compelled to support human space exploration. (credit: NASA)

Mars for everyone

Many people today dream of a future where people can travel easily to places like the Moon and Mars for vacations or even on a permanent basis. Over the last decade or two several groups have appeared on the scene in an attempt to start out on what will be a very complex and long road to Mars. Inspired by the potential of “what could be” and the blank canvas that Mars seems to represent many average citizens have also started to join some of these Mars-related groups in support of efforts to one day establish a permanent and growing human presence on Mars and on other worlds.

Of all of the hostile worlds in our vast solar system Mars comes out as the clear favorite for the possibility of both finding evidence of life and of establishing human settlements. The Moon has always been a favorite due to its close proximity to Earth and will remain so for the foreseeable future; I am all for efforts to set up bases there and eventually settlements. For many years now debate has raged about where we should go in the solar system and what is best, and to do this debate justice the truth is we should be aiming for all of our dreams, not just one or the other. Unfortunately, the means of making any space vision happen are limited to government agencies like NASA, with the private sector still some years behind.

For many years now debate has raged about where we should go in the solar system and what is best, and to do this debate justice the truth is we should be aiming for all of our dreams, not just one or the other.

This brings us back to the question: where should we go first? NASA is going to the Moon within the next decade or so and is on track for that task. Mars advocates like me would like to argue that the Moon is the wrong target and that we should be going for Mars first. However, when I look at the political barriers for just getting people back to the Moon I have come to realize that there is no point trying to divert attention away from this grand effort when the political and social climate is just not right for a mission to Mars. NASA needs to remain on track and they need a united space community behind them, for better or worse. So the Moon will come first and maybe while NASA are engaged in that project there will be many side benefits for the space community, including Mars enthusiasts.

One of the keys to sending humans to Mars is a robust heavy-lift vehicle, and that is exactly what will be built and tested over the next few years. Mars enthusiasts would no doubt love to use the Ares for reaching its namesake planet first, but clearly that is not going to happen. I have heard the rumblings from many within the “Mars first” section of the space community about how they want to pressure the next administration into a near-term Mars mission, but with the struggles NASA continues to have with current VSE funding perhaps it is time for us to rethink that strategy.

Contrary to what some in the Mars community might say or believe, we have not yet overcome the issues of radiation protection, life support, gravity, and landing human-rated craft onto the surface of Mars. While research is going into the second part of the journey to Mars—what we will do once on the surface—very little research is being conducted on the more crucial aspects I mentioned above. We must not get the cart before the horse with sending humans to Mars. Going to the Moon will in many ways help us prepare for the transit to Mars, and will develop systems and technologies that we can use there. So whether NASA or some private group manages to land humans back on the Moon within the next several years, we would do well to support this effort with everything we have.

People—and that includes governments, average citizens, and the private sector—will much more readily understand and accept the drive to Mars if they see people living and working on the Moon. Just being witness to such a project will instill confidence into a jaded world and, in time, support for missions to Mars will literally take off. Mars enthusiasts have stated from time to time that whether NASA goes to Mars or not they want to do it privately some day and eventually open the planet up to settlement by all. This a noble goal and one I agree with, but I am also a realist. The new private space sector and other national agencies are still many decades behind NASA in their funding and abilities, so relying upon them to get us to Mars soon is not looking good.

What is left then? There is another option that many in the space community ignore but I believe will provide for all of our space dreams far better than relying upon the quagmire of politics of national agencies or the fickle fortunes of private companies. That means is public support. Without it the future for humanity in space will continue to move at a snail’s pace. I know many in the space community just don’t believe it is possible for the public to be of any real use in achieving the goals we have but I am here to tell you that it is possible and such things been achieved before.

Many governments rely upon a “popularity scale” in determining their agenda. Are Mars missions high on the political agenda? Does the average person in the street know or care about a human future on Mars as much as putting food on the table or paying the bills? If we are honest with ourselves we know the answers to these questions already. Individual, corporate, and national priorities are nowhere near the drive to Mars right now. People are running scared in a post-9/11, post-Virginia Tech world and in times like these we need hope and inspiration; what better than an effort to start new branches of life on new worlds?

To create a favorable market and build up public sentiment, the space community and the Mars community should be using every resource at our disposal.

The new private space sector, despite all of their spin, has failed to make much of an impact in popular culture at this point. The plans and projects of NASA are also failing to inspire much new support or interest, according to many recent polls. This is why there must be a complete rethink from the space community about how they communicate and relate to the general public across the world. Without real and wide-scale public support NASA will continue to struggle with budgets and progress, and the private sector will continue to struggle with finding investors in a market that is not in their favor. Public support is the foundation of a robust future in space.

To create a favorable market and build up public sentiment, the space community and the Mars community should be using every resource at our disposal. Basically our goal is to make space in general, and Mars in particular, more popular and acceptable in our society so that NASA will receive better funding and the private sector will be taken seriously. Many in the space community seem to think that flight hardware alone will convince the public. To some degree that is true, but the problem with that theory is that most private space startups suffer from a lack of funds to develop and build their hardware, and that lack of funds comes about because the public are not really in their favor.

This is where the foundation is missing. We want to build rockets so much that we have ignored the money issue. Investors and politicians come from the public. So it is in all of our interests to inspire, excite, and educate the public about the benefits and wonder of human spaceflight. Private companies and space advocacy groups should be spending significant parts of their budgets in an effort to bring the public on board any way they can. Yet the reality is many space startups and non-profit groups use their miniscule funds to try and develop what really are multibillion-dollar ventures (like going to the Moon and Mars privately). This often results in a culture of failures as funding all too often dries up.

So let’s focus on doing whatever it takes to win public interest and support. Then our dreams of colonies on the Moon and Mars might come true. At MarsDrive one of our themes is that “We want everyone to have more space”. This means that we want space and Mars to be for all people, not just the elite or a few astronauts. If the space community started taking the public more seriously and began to involve them much more than they have previously in their plans, they would find that the 50, 60 or 70 percent “interested in space” of the public might actually start to lend them real support in ever greater numbers. Space, and Mars, should be for everyone, and while it remains the exclusive domain of the wealthy, academia, engineers and scientists, we will never gain much ground in this area of public support.

Recently Buzz Aldrin announced a plan to send an average citizen into space and I for one applaud him for this effort. There are many ways we can reach the public; this is just one of them. The best way we can win in this area is to at least start opening our minds to trying new ideas. If NASA had a larger budget we could do this, if the private space sector had bigger investments we could do that but in the meantime everything grinds along at glacial speed, no wonder the public is turned off. It’s time we turned them on again.