Op-ed | Prescription for Mars: Stay the Course, Don’t Screw Up

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Recently, a diverse group of individuals from the aerospace industry, the entertainment industry and finance, among other disciplines, came together on the West Coast to discuss the future of space exploration. This event stimulated a lot of frank discussion, but one quote seemed to resonate at the end of the gathering — “Stay the course and don’t screw up!”

What does this mean? Put simply, it means that we must not reinvent the space program over and over again. While everything is not perfect, we can’t afford another reset of U.S. space policy when the next president takes office. That would not benefit anyone in the space community and could permanently delay or derail efforts to explore beyond low Earth orbit.

Too often we are dragged into debates about destinations or about traditional aerospace vs. entrepreneurial space, but Mars is an ideal anchor for the space program whether you support going back to the lunar surface, increased commercial activity or missions with international participation.

This was evident at another recent event held in Washington that had the express purpose of bringing these diverse groups together. Even though most participants brought differing points of view to the meeting, they nevertheless parted largely in agreement that a goal of putting humans on Mars in the 2030s would best serve to organize and exercise the technological prowess of all interested parties.

Mars exploration is also one of very few national programs/issues not stymied by partisan politics. If it can be shown that a campaign of progressively more ambitious missions leading to humans landing on Mars can be accomplished without significant increases in the NASA budget (and we believe that it can), humans to Mars would be an ideal symbol of bipartisan cooperation. International partnership is also critical to successful accomplishment of such an undertaking, and could protect the program from elimination or major refocusing in the next administration.

While everything is not perfect, we can’t afford another reset of U.S. space policy when the next president takes office. That would not benefit anyone in the space community.

To build on this bipartisan support, the budgetary and technical realities need to be far better articulated to policymakers and the public, as there is a lot of misinformation being promoted as fact. For example, recent comments that Mars missions will cost anywhere between $500 billion to $1.5 trillion are mind-numbingly overblown. While exact budgetary figures can’t be provided for a program lasting over a 20-year period, recent development of Mars architectures concludes that the total cost will not approach the wild figures that are being bandied about. These issues have been extensively discussed at the Mars Affordability and Sustainability workshops (http://www.ExploreMars.org/affording-mars) by key stakeholders in space architecture, science, industry and commercial, and academia — not all of whom are strong supporters of human missions to Mars. The workshops showed that humans to Mars by the mid-2030s would be challenging from a budgetary and technical perspective, but it is an achievable goal without major increases in the NASA budget (a topic that will be thoroughly discussed at the upcoming Humans to Mars Summit in Washington).

Sending humans to the surface of Mars is now a central goal of U.S. space policy over the next two decades. It has been a recurring goal through multiple administrations. In fact, according to the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, it is the law of the land. It’s time to get on with it.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t adjust course within the broader program — different thinking of precursors and strategy may be required for technical, scientific and even political reasons — but a clear pathway to Mars needs to be formulated and set in motion.

Progress is already being made. Witness the successful Orion Exploration Flight Test 1 last December and the successful tests of both the RS-25 main engines and the five-segment solid-rocket booster for the Space Launch System.

If we wait for 100 percent agreement from the broader space community on every detail, we will never get anything done. We already have impressive capabilities in development by a wide range of players. There is also unprecedented support for humans to Mars that we need to build on. That’s why we say (and we cannot emphasize this enough) that we need to “Stay the course and don’t screw up!”


Chris Carberry is chief executive of Explore Mars Inc. Joe Cassady is executive director, space, for Aerojet Rocketdyne and a board member of Explore Mars Inc.