Trump’s right: A Mars mission by 2024 is possible

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On April 24, President Trump spoke by video teleconfernece to astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer on the International Space Station. During the conversation, Trump strongly hinted that he would like to see America send a mission to Mars while he is president.

Most observers have taken his comments as less than serious. Whitson herself told the president it would take until sometime in the 2030s.

But Whitson’s comments notwithstanding, Trump is right. American should go to Mars, and the president and Congress should commit to launching that mission by sometime in 2024.

In May 1961, President Kennedy announced the goal of landing on the moon before the end of the decade. It was recognized at the time as ambitious, even absurdly so. But nonetheless, in a bipartisan spirit, Congress and America adopted that goal, culminating in the moon landing on July 20, 1969, a mere eight years and three months later. It showed America to ourselves and the world as we would like to be and to be seen: Optimistic, courageous, capable. We have not had another day like it since.

But we can do that again. Like Kennedy in 1961, President Trump should ask Congress to commit to launching a manned landing on Mars by the end of 2024, 55 years after the first landing on the moon. Such a mission would, more than any other possible initiative the president could consider, truly make America great again.

Why Mars? It would bring Americans together in pride, helping to heal the wounds of partisan battles. It would immediately add to America’s prestige, something squandered in wars fought but not won and red lines drawn but not enforced. It would inspire a new generation of students to become the engineers and scientists we need for the 21st century. It would inspire the best of today’s scientists and engineers around the world to come to America to work.

There will be some who object to pursuing such a goal. There are those who claim that there is too much more work and research to be done before such a commitment can be made. But when Kennedy and Congress took up the public challenge of landing on the moon we had in hand precious few of the technologies needed to get us there. America had not yet even placed a man into orbit (two weeks before Kennedy’s speech, Alan Shepard became the first American in space in a flight lasting only about 15 minutes). In contrast, today we have done nearly everything required for a flight to Mars. In 1961, no two spacecraft had ever rendezvoused or docked in space. It was mastered by the Gemini program and has been performed over a hundred times since. No one had ever navigated a spacecraft — manned or unmanned — from one body in space to another and landed. Now we have done that nine times on the moon and seven on Mars. In 1961, we didn’t know if humans could stand weightlessness for more than a few hours. Today, humans have been in orbit for over a year — plenty of time for the trip to Mars. In 1961, we had no launch vehicles capable of launching even two men to low Earth orbit. Today, we have three new heavy-lift vehicles scheduled to be flown within the next three years: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and NASA’s Space Launch System.

Some in the space industry have other less ambitious, but ironically just as expensive, plans. They would like to build a base on the moon or a space station in orbit around the moon and sell these plans as stepping stones to Mars. Both these plans have their merits but they are expensive and not required or even particularly useful for preparing for a Mars trip and such plans simply cannot capture the attention and imagination of the public like the first voyage to Mars. Some planetary scientists urge an unmanned sample-return mission as preparation for a far-off future manned mission. But this mission, too, is neither necessary nor useful to prepare for a manned mission. In truth, a sample-return mission would be done best on Mars as it was on the moon — with people.

Even some space enthusiasts might decry the goal of completing a Mars landing in such a short time. They worry that a sprint to Mars, like the sprint to the moon, would continue to leave them Earthbound, with no way for ordinary citizens to take their trips to space. But the truth is that America is simply better at sprints than marathons. If the end goal is too far into the future, the project is in danger from both opponents who have too many chances to delay or cancel the effort completely and proponents who want to expand the program in ways that delay it and make it an even bigger target for opponents. If America had not had the commitment to land on the moon before the end of the 1960s, it is likely we would never have made the landing at all. And we still wouldn’t have any infrastructure for space travel. But we can finish the flight to Mars and leave an infrastructure in place. Applying a technique called aerobraking, or simply by carrying additional fuel, the primary and landing spacecraft can remain in orbit, to be used again.

Then there are those who extrapolate from the Apollo program and say such an undertaking would cost hundreds of billions of dollars and that is far too expensive for any one country. But such assessments ignore the technologies, infrastructure, and experience already paid for. Most of what needs to be done for a trip to Mars has already been done in another context. It is even possible to look at how much that work cost and draw conclusions about the general magnitude of what a successful landing on Mars could cost. At its most basic, the voyage requires a primary spacecraft large enough for the astronauts to be comfortable for the length of the voyage and a lander. The Columbus module on the International Space Station contains life support and cost about $2 billion dollars to develop and build. The lander could be derived from SpaceX’s Dragon 2 vehicle, which SpaceX is developing for about $2.5 billion. The added challenges for this flight, especially for the lander which now must include additional engines, fuel and space for cargo, are significant, so it would be reasonable to estimate a doubling of those costs.  There would be launch costs but those can probably be met for less than a billion dollars for the three or four flights outlined here. The total is $10 billion. Could a Mars landing really be done for so little? Perhaps, but it would be a strictly “bare bones” mission. $20 billion to $30 billion is more realistic.

Could $30 billion be found in NASA’s currently projected budgets? No, but the president is proposing to spend roughly a trillion dollars on infrastructure spending over the next 10 years to create jobs. Directing three percent of that to this project would create just as many jobs and pay for an infrastructure that is literally out of this world.  SN

Carl Rosene holds a Ph.D in computer science from Rice University and currently works as a computer consultant in Fairfax, Virginia. He is a long-time observer of human space exploration who published a paper on orbital transfer technologies in the Space Solar Power Review in 1983.

This article first appeared in the May 8, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine under the title “Trump ahead of NASA on way to Mars.”