Foust Forward | Can racing back to the moon speed up a human mission to Mars?

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the May 20, 2019 issue.

Advocates of human missions to Mars have a curious combination of patience and impatience. They offer proposals that would get humans to the surface of Mars within a decade or so. Yet, they’ve continued to offer such proposals for decades despite the lack of progress.

A case is point is Robert Zubrin, perhaps the biggest proponent for human Mars exploration. In his new book The Case for Space, he revisits his Mars Direct concept that, in this scenario, would launch the first mission in 2026, with a crew to follow in 2028. But Zubrin developed Mars Direct nearly three decades ago, and those who remember his early ’90s presentations about it recall the first missions launching in 2001.

Mars advocates also have a conflicted relationship with the moon, which they consider something of a frenemy. The moon could serve as a proving ground to test technologies needed for Mars missions just three days from Earth. However, they also fear that the moon could become a distraction, diverting resources and further delaying missions to Mars.

But as NASA seeks to accelerate a human return to the moon, there’s the case that it could also pull forward a human mission to Mars. That, at least, was the argument NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made when he spoke at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington May 14, a day after the agency announced it was seeking an additional $1.6 billion in 2020 to achieve a 2024 lunar landing.

“When we accelerate the lunar program, we are, by definition, accelerating the humans to Mars program,” he said, prompting applause from an audience of Mars advocates.

Some, though, question that claim. A panel that followed Bridenstine included Bhavya Lal of the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI), who led a study mandated by the 2017 NASA authorization act regarding a human mission to Mars in 2033. That study, released in April, concluded that a 2033 mission wasn’t feasible regardless of budgets because of the time needed to develop the needed vehicles and technologies.

That study assumed a human lunar landing in 2028, the schedule NASA had been following before Vice President Pence’s March 26 speech that moved up the timetable. But, she said, moving up the lunar landing likely wouldn’t help with the Mars mission, and could create other complications, like funding both sustained lunar operations and development of Mars spacecraft simultaneously.

“It is unclear to us, or at least to me, not having done a formal study, how going to the moon by 2024 accelerates Mars by 2033 or beyond,” she concluded.

Others at the event were more optimistic. During a panel discussion at the conference the next day, Hoppy Price, the Mars program chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noted the STPI report was based on NASA’s baseline architecture. Alternative concepts, he said, “use more near-term technology systems and avoid a lot of the risks cited in the STPI report.”

One such alternative, Price said, would avoid the use of high-power solar-electric propulsion and cryogenic propellants, and incorporate systems developed for the lunar mission. Six SLS launches over four years, as well as several commercial launches, would place in orbit all the hardware needed for a mission to depart in 2033, he argued.

It’s not surprising that there are solutions to getting humans to Mars in 2033: there’s never been a shortage of ideas that — on paper, at least — lacked obvious technological showstoppers. The challenge has always been building and then sustaining a case for spending many billions of dollars over many years to turn those ideas into reality, one that is not getting any easier.

Those claims, though, could at least hold off a fight between moon and Mars advocates. “If you want to yell at me, I’m here for that, too,” Bridenstine said at the conference before taking questions. “Just note: before you yell at me, we’re going to the moon so we can go to Mars.”


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.