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.