Facebook Twitter YouTube RSS

You are here

Mars the Hard Way

In recent weeks, NASA has put forth two remarkable new plans for its proposed next major initiatives. Both bear careful examination.

As the centerpiece for its future human spaceflight program, NASA proposes to build another space station, this one located not in low Earth orbit but at the L2 Lagrange point just above the far side of the Moon. This plan is indeed remarkable in as much as an L2 space station would serve no useful purpose whatsoever. We don’t need an L2 space station to go back to the Moon. We don’t need an L2 space station to go to near-Earth asteroids. We don’t need an L2 space station to go to Mars. We don’t need an L2 space station for anything.

The other initiative is a new plan for Mars sample return, which is now held to be the primary mission of the robotic Mars exploration program. This plan is remarkable for its unprecedented and utterly unnecessary complexity.

It may well be asked whether a sample return is the best way to pursue the robotic scientific exploration of Mars, within the budget of the Mars exploration program run by NASA’s planetary exploration directorate. That is an issue over which reasonable people may, and do, differ. It is certainly possible to propose alternative robotic mission sets consisting of assortments of orbiters, rovers, aircraft, surface networks, etc., that might produce a greater science return than the Mars sample return mission, much sooner, especially in view of the fact that human explorers could return hundreds of times the amount of samples, selected far more wisely, from thousands of times the candidate rocks, than a sample return mission. However, that said, if members of the scientific community really believe that a robotic Mars sample return is so valuable that it is worth sacrificing all the other kinds of science they could do with their cash, then it is imperative that NASA develop the most efficient Mars sample return plan, to allow the sample to be obtained as quickly as possible and with the least possible expenditure of funds that could be used for other types of Mars exploration missions.

Unfortunately, however, rather than propose the most cost-effective plan for a Mars sample return mission, NASA has now set forth the most convoluted, riskiest, costliest approach ever conceived. The Curiosity mission just demonstrated a system that can soft land 900 kilograms on the martian surface. With a 900-kilogram payload, it is possible to land a complete two-stage Mars ascent vehicle capable of flying a capsule with a 1-kilogram sample directly back to Earth, as well as a Mars Exploration Rover class vehicle to gather the samples for it. But instead of proposing such a straightforward plan, NASA has now baselined a mission conducted in eight parts: a) land a large rover to collect and cache samples; b) dispatch a Mars ascent vehicle to Mars and perform a surface rendezvous with the rover or its cache; c) fly the Mars ascent vehicle to Mars orbit to rendezvous with a solar electric propulsion spacecraft; d) fly the solar electric propulsion spacecraft back to near-Earth interplanetary space; e) build a LaGrange point space station; f) fly astronauts to the LaGrange point space station; g) dispatch astronauts from a LaGrange point space station to take the sample from the solar electric propulsion spacecraft and return to the LaGrange point space station; h) conduct extended studies of the sample in the LaGrange point space station.

The kindest thing that can be said about this quintuple rendezvous plan is that it is probably the unplanned product of the pathology of bureaucracy, rather than the willful madness of any individual. For a fifth of its cost, NASA could fly five simple direct sample return missions, each of which would have (at least) five times its chance of mission success. So it’s hard to imagine any sane person inventing it on purpose.

Clearly, though, the group that drifted into it was attempting to make the Mars sample return mission provide an apparent excuse for the existence for an assortment of other NASA hobbyhorses. For example, we note that it makes use of the LaGrange point space station. But this does not help the Mars sample return mission, which could much more simply just return the samples to Earth, where far better lab facilities are available than could ever be installed at L2. Rather, by invoking the L2 station as a critical element of the mission plan, NASA is inserting a toll both blocking the way to the accomplishment of the sample return, while radically increasing mission and program cost, schedule and risk and decreasing science return. The same can be said for requiring the use of electric propulsion, a technology program that was inserted into the human Mars mission critical path based on an unsupportable claim by a well-placed advocate that it could speed up interplanetary transits, and that now needs some alternative rationale.

This planning methodology is equivalent to that of a shopaholic couple who ask an architect to design their dream house but insist that he include in his design as critical components every whimsical piece of random junk they have ever bought in the past and piled up in their back yard, in order to make those purchases appear rational after the fact. By capitulating to this kind of thinking, the NASA leadership has transformed Mars sample return from a mission into a “vision.”

NASA is facing an oncoming fiscal tsunami. There could never be a worse time for the agency to seek to inflate the cost, stretch the schedule and minimize the return of its missions. If the space program is to survive, it needs to really deliver the goods. Now, more than ever, if we actually want to get a sample from Mars, we need to employ a plan that does that in the simplest, cheapest, fastest and most direct fashion possible. Under no circumstances should the mission be made into a Christmas tree on which to hang all the ornaments in the bureaucracy’s narcissistic wish box of useless and costly multidecade delays. And the same can be said of the human Mars exploration mission as well. If we want to go to Mars, we need to go to Mars, not to L2.


Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society and the author of “The Case for Mars.” His latest book is “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism,” published by Encounter Books.

Article Comments

This sample return is so silly it must have a clear purpose which is simply hidden to outsiders.

this is definitely the best way to kill ANY future Mars Sample Return or manned Mars missions. Unbelievable but true: the obvious power of the established space industry pushing for such a scenario. With a simple Sample Return mission, based on the Curiosity scenario by just adding a 1 kg Mars sample return part, companies earning their money with ISS and expensive but unnecessary technologies would lose jobs.

Perhaps the Mars effort might be better served if Dr. Zubrin or NASA could explain what it is that we will be doing on Mars that will remotely justify the titanic costs of sending people there.

(by the way, Dr. Zubrin, I've read your book....twice...and still don't see anything approaching a "business plan" for how human Mars activities can come close to having "net present economic value")

Dr. Zubrin says we don't need an L2 station to go back to the Moon. We may not need a station, but an exploration architecture based on the Earth-Moon L2 point has profound advantages over other techniques for lunar and deep-space exploration, as I noted six years ago, based on work done in the late 1960s by astrodynamicist Robert Farquhar:


Dr. Zubrin we thank you for explaining why the Obama Administration plan is since a waste of time. The only way to get everyone excited about space travel is to have a person on Mars looking back at Earth and telling you how beautiful it is. That is why Apollo is called the golden era of space flight because you had a person on the Moon, digging in the ground seeing things that no human eye has seen before that is true exploration.

By Kevin M on

The only thing useful to do at L2 is a telescope array, but that does not require a manned presence.

As for the Mars sample return mission, it seems pointless and expensive no matter how it is done. I'd rather see a shotgun of simple Mars rovers covering the planet on a grid. Robots can do rock sampling just dandy, and diversity of location will beat the one-big-mission every time with unexpected results.

Then again, from NASA's perspective all this is pretty silly -- their main goal is providing work for aerospace companies and their workers and this plan is gangbusters for that.

NASA...the National Astronomical Spending Agency. Like many government agencies they've been captured by folks who could care less about what their mission actually is or should be, and are more concerned with consolidating power and feathering their own nests. Time to clean house. Start with Hansen.

The only purpose of an L2 space station is for radio astronomy; the Earth would be in the RF "shadow" of the Moon.

Or, I suppose, for people who detest the very SIGHT of the Earth...

Quite the contrary, a station in a halo orbit about the L2 point would be in constant view of the Earth, able to serve as a radio relay between Earth and activities on the lunar far side.

That Mr. Zubrin believes that the purpose of an L2 habitat is for Mars sample return is hilarious. Bob, the world is bigger than Mars, though I understand it's challenging for you to see it that way.

In fact, a habitat at L2 would let us develop and exercise our skills in human travels into deep space. Much the same way as ISS has been a powerful tool for developing and exercising our skills in LEO, and microgravity in particular. Such a habitat could also be highly useful as a depot, control station, and transportation hub for lunar surface operations, whether by humans on the surface or telerobots. Yes, even ISS was once spun as being essential to Mars sample return. Thank goodness we're not deluding ourselves that way anymore.

But the profound rationale for an L2 habitat is this. It's an affordable way to reach into deep space. No, landing humans on the Moon again, and as part of a sustainable program, isn't affordable. Not yet, at least. So as much as we want to do that, let's not delude ourselves into thinking it's fiscally credible. Putting a habitat at L2 seems like it might be affordable.

BTW, Mr. Zubrin (and the Space News editors) should understand that the ci-lunar point he's taking about was named for Joseph Louis Lagrange. Not LaGrange. It's a signpost of dim policy that this essay is mistaken in that way. I looked at it and laughed even before I read it!

NASA - wasting money, time and astronauts' lives for over a generation now.

I'm surprised at the lack of research and knowledge.

NASA believes flying Martian material back to earth or to the iss is too dangerous because it could introduce deadly toxins we don't know about.

Our current set of technology calls for a separate ascent vehicle from the rover from the spacecraft, its simply the cheapest and most proven way of doing that.

As a space news reporter, you really should do some research before typing.

Add comment

Log in or register to post comments

Career Center