Subtlety is not among Bob Zubrin’s defining traits. In an October opinion piece published by The Washington Times, Zubrin caused a stir when he declared that the White House was planning to kill NASA’s planetary science program following the Maven mission, slated to launch in late 2013 to study the martian atmosphere. This brought denials from both NASA and the White House, and Zubrin has since backed away from the piece’s most inflammatory rhetoric.

Nevertheless, he maintains that NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program is about to enter a “dark decade,” citing the U.S. decision this year to scale back its involvement ExoMars, a joint effort with the European Space Agency (ESA). NASA has backed out of plans to launch a European-built orbiter in 2016 and supply a U.S. rover for a 2018 launch; its future role in the program remains uncertain.

Zubrin is founder and president of the Lakewood, Colo.-based Mars Society, which advocates the manned exploration and eventual settlement of the red planet. A former Lockheed Martin engineer, Zubrin worked on technologies critical to long-term human space exploration before adding advocacy to his résumé.

For more than a decade, Zubrin has pushed a concept he calls “Mars Direct,” which would rely on existing technologies and in-situ resource utilization to establish a permanent manned presence on the red planet. More recently he has teamed with the Planetary Society to advocate against reducing NASA spending on robotic exploration.

Zubrin spoke recently with Space News staff writer Dan Leone.


We were a bit surprised by the Washington Times editorial. What was that based on?

On a conversation that I had with the Planetary Society’s lobbyist. The [White House Office of Management and Budget] and [Office of Science and Technology Policy] said that they won’t allow NASA to commit any funds to the Mars sample return program with Europe.


Don’t you think you drew a conclusion that was premature and a bit alarmist given how the budget process works?

It isn’t premature. We are walking away from our commitment with our European partners. We signed a letter in 2009 saying, “We pledge to do this bold new Mars exploration program with you.” Now we’re walking away from launching the 2016 [Mars orbiter] mission. The European Space Agency was putting up a million euros for the 2018 [sample caching] rover mission, and we’re walking away from that, too.


We’re in the midst of what many argue is a national budget crisis. Shouldn’t planetary science make some sacrifices to the cause of deficit reduction?

There’s a tough budget, but look: Federal spending has increased 40 percent since 2008. NASA spending has increased 5 percent since 2008. NASA shouldn’t pay for misspending elsewhere in the federal government.


NASA denies that the planetary science program is coming to an end. The Osiris-Rex asteroid sample return mission, for example, is moving forward and scheduled for launch in 2016. Do you find that reassuring?

Look: Right now, the queue is empty. In the 2012 budget, there’s no money for new missions in planetary science beyond Maven launching in 2013. For a while, people won’t see it, but we’re not planting any seeds. No seeds, no harvest. No missions, no program. What we’re dealing with here is not, “Well, we’re canceling sample return but we’re going to give you two rovers every two years to go to different places on Mars.” What we’re dealing with is, “We’re not doing your program and we’re not putting anything else in its place.”


Mars sample return has been held up as a Holy Grail of sorts for robotic exploration. Is such a mission really that critical?

There’s a whole realm of potentially valuable and exciting robotic missions we could do on Mars, and certainly sample return is at or near the top of that list. I myself am not committed to telling you that Mars sample return is the only way to do robotic Mars exploration. It’s one way, and it’s the way that’s been approved by a lot of serious people. What we can do most of all if we return samples to Earth is we could have this enormous scientific complex, with labs of every type and description, to subject the samples to all kinds of investigations.


NASA has spent several billion dollars on Mars exploration in the last decade, including its most ambitious project yet in the car-sized Mars Science Laboratory rover, which launched successfully Nov. 26. Isn’t it fair to say that Mars is getting the attention that it deserves?

This is a question of defending science and civilization. If you let a gap come in [Mars missions] you’re not just losing time; you’re losing the use of the infrastructure that you’ve built up over the previous missions. You’re losing your ability to coordinate. If we send a rover to Mars now, we can still use Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to guide it with its photographs. The orbiter can image something and they can say, “Send the rover over there; let’s see what this looks like from the ground.” These sorts of combined operations require multiple assets at Mars at the same time. And if you have a break in the program, you lose this whole ability to do combined operations and have multiple backed-up communications, and all the rest. And if it had been my choice, I would have sent more medium-sized rovers rather than the Mars Science Lab.


What is the advantage of sending two medium-sized |rovers instead of one large rover like the Mars Science Laboratory?

Again, these are things that reasonable people can differ about. The Mars Science Laboratory was a certain deviation. It cost more, and we take up sort of two launch opportunities to do it. We didn’t launch anything in 2009, but now we’ve launched the Mars Science Lab here in 2011. I personally believe that an aggressive program with rovers, orbiters and aerial vehicles, be they balloons or powered aircraft for support, would be a very good program if we followed it up with a near-term human Mars mission. We could return a lot of samples that way.


The overbudget James Webb Space Telescope astronomy flagship has averted cancellation for now, but several other missions, including planetary probes, likely will be delayed to help cover the cost. Should other NASA science programs be tapped to pay for the James Webb cost overruns?

No, no, no — I don’t accept that dichotomy. We have to save Webb. We have to save Webb. Webb is a magnificent program. It’s an extraordinary program. It’s going to be one of the major achievements of our age, and we have to save it. If there’s a cost overrun, then there’s a cost overrun. We just have to do it, OK? And if you did decide to take [money] from NASA, there are other places it could come from. For example, you’ve got the [international] space station budget of like $3 billion a year, and we’re not building anything for it or launching anything to it, so what’s that all about? We’ve got the Space Launch System at $3 billion a year. I happen to believe in heavy lift. I do not accept these arguments that we can use orbital propellant depots or something like that. But, the way to achieve heavy lift is not by setting up a $3 billion-a-year entitlement, but to simply issue [a request for proposals] for a $5 billion fixed-price contract to develop a heavy lift vehicle, along with a couple of other proposals in that range to develop the habitat module and the [crew] capsule.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.