Op-ed | Setting Arbitrary Cost, Schedule Will Never Get People to Mars

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Daniel Adamo was right on in castigating “faster, better, cheaper” philosophies as the wrong way to get to Mars. But he didn’t go far enough.

Adamo was correct in citing the need for a dynamic equilibrium among the three key attributes of the aerospace trade space: schedule, quality and cost. He was also correct in identifying risk acceptance, the unavoidable consequence of constraining cost and schedule, as the road to disaster, and in emphasizing that quality (read “reliability”) must always come first, especially in human missions.

So how do we find that elusive dynamic equilibrium in the trade space? There is a clear, straightforward way to do that, and to maximize the probability of success, but that path is, unfortunately, contrary to the tenets deemed important by those in charge of large aerospace programs, and is therefore largely unacceptable to them.

What’s the secret? It’s a very simple one that I suggested over a decade ago and is perhaps even more pertinent today, with the rash of recent Mars proposals: Put no limits on scheduled completion of the project or its total cost.

What is needed is a firm, long-term commitment to pursue the goal of humans exploring and eventually settling on Mars, not for a year or two or for a decade or two, but for as long as it takes. And don’t expect it to cost $5 billion or $30 billion or $50 billion, but plan on allocating a reasonable (and acceptable) fraction of the NASA annual budget every year. Mars isn’t going away, and the important fiscal constraint isn’t the total cost, but the annual cost; i.e., the budget.

Note that I am suggesting a NASA program, not one that would be financed by commercial or philanthropic organizations. The long duration and especially long-term investment would not be commensurate with philanthropy. A commercial project, by definition, would require some means of making a profit, and aside from subcontracting to NASA or the European Space Agency the exploration of Mars has no prospect of returning any profit for decades. Of course the collaboration of other spacefaring nations, as in the International Space Station, would be both desirable and highly beneficial to NASA, but in view of the current geopolitical and economic environment must be considered an unlikely prospect.

The perennial plan shouldn’t be limited to a single goal, but should be a sequence of major leaps forward that follow in logical succession. Also, there’s nothing wrong with changing directions as circumstances and progress dictate (for example, budget availability or new shielding technologies to reduce crew radiation exposure), as long as we maintain a long-term commitment and don’t keep starting and stopping.

Planet Mars
Mars. Credit: ESA

The key consideration is not when we get humans to Mars, but to avoid the stops and starts that doomed previous efforts, by maintaining a steady, long-term commitment to building and validating the required capabilities and conducting the necessary missions efficiently and safely.

NASA can implement this type of mission at its present annual budget level, without emasculating space science or aeronautics efforts, as long as no arbitrary dates are locked in. Since the first few years of a long-term Mars program would be devoted to planning, technology assessment and maturation, and project milestone definition, the budget demands would be minimal. Budget growth in future years would be commensurate with termination of the International Space Station and completion of development of the Space Launch System and the Orion space exploration module.

Of course reasonable milestones need to be defined in order to measure progress, but there should be no panic if they have to be extended. Note too that this doctrine is quite compatible with Adamo’s proposal for Mars exploration via low-latency telepresence, with humans in Mars orbit and robotic systems on the surface. This approach would comprise a most satisfactory milestone in ultimate Mars exploration by humans and, subsequently, settlement.

This long-term commitment concept was cited by former presidential science adviser John Marburger, who said, “The ultimate goal … to use accessible space for the benefit of humankind … is a goal that is not confined to a decade or a century.”

Note, however, that this approach to space exploration should not be confused with the one espoused by former Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), who said since Mars isn’t going anywhere why should we commit hard-pressed budgets to get there? With that reasoning we would never get there, because budgets will always be tight.

The primary barrier that needs to be overcome, aside from the difficult but solvable technological and engineering issues that face any major long-term project, is the reluctance of lawmakers and administrators to abandon their intrinsic need for fixed targets of schedule and cost: “When will you land people on Mars and what will be the total price?” They cannot accept the right answers: “When we’ve completed all the necessary research, development, construction and operations to maintain safety and reliability,” and, “The sum of affordable annual expenditures until then.”

Unfortunately, this barrier is not likely to be surmounted in the current political and economic environment, so all we can do is continue to seek the best course of action that is compatible with that constraint. The current planning for robotic exploration of Mars and the promising future proposed missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are all valuable undertakings that can be pursued within the present political context, and could perhaps shed more light on the burning question: Can life exist elsewhere in the universe besides on Earth? As physicist Philip Morrison, the founder of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, once said about the discovery of life on Mars (or anywhere else other than Earth), “Once could be an accident, but twice is very good statistics that it isn’t.”

Jerry Grey was a professor of aerospace engineering at Princeton University, director of science and technology policy at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and president of the International Astronautical Federation. He is an Honorary Fellow of the AIAA and a Fellow of Great Britain’s Royal Aeronautical Society.