The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama says it wishes to set a course towards sending humans to Mars. If it does, here are the essential features that such a program needs to have in order to succeed.

  • The mission objectives must be worthwhile. The reason to send humans to Mars is not to set a new altitude record for the aviation almanac. Rather it is to conduct serious exploration that will resolve the questions of the potential existence and diversity of life in the universe and open a new world to human settlement. Therefore missions that do not actually land on Mars, or only stay for brief durations, are to be shunned. There is no point in going to Mars unless you can do something useful when you get there. If the program is not solidly based on such a rational foundation, it will be canceled long before it ever goes anywhere.
  • The mission must be proximate. Claiming one is setting a goal of sending humans to Mars in the year 2047, or some other far future date, is risible. No one living several decades hence will know or care what today’s NASA’s officials chose to put into their schedules, and to assign the mission to execution by such people is simply to avoid commitment. For the program to be real, it needs to be planned in a way that will allow it to be flown by people who are in the astronaut corps today, not by generations yet unborn. Furthermore, for the program to have any chance of success, it must reach its objective within a limited time. Otherwise the political conditions that allowed it to be launched will almost certainly disappear before it reaches its goal.
  • The mission plan must be practical. The right way to do engineering is to take the simplest approach possible, with the fewest needs for new technologies. The wrong way is to take the most complex approach, with the maximum expenditures for new technologies. The Mars mission thus should not be designed for the purpose of justifying the complete assortment of NASA or industry advanced technology efforts seeking funding. Running a program that way is like running a company with its expenditures determined by its vendors. Practicality furthermore requires that the mission be designed around technologies that are either in hand or clearly feasible. Making the mission dependent upon fantastical futuristic systems, such as gigantic 100,000-kilowatt nuclear electric spaceships, is simply another way of ensuring that it never happens.
  • The mission leadership must not be feckless. It is essential that issues be dealt with as problems to be solved rather than as excuses for avoiding action. Thus, for example, NASA needs to stop hiding behind the cosmic radiation and zero gravity health issues as excuses for not going to Mars until unobtainable propulsion systems are available. More than half a dozen astronauts and cosmonauts already have received cumulative cosmic ray doses during extended stays in Earth orbit without harm. Zero gravity health effects can be avoided by rotating the spacecraft to create artificial gravity.
  • Mission success must be the highest priority. That may seem self-evident, but it is not. The achievement of mission success requires really flying the mission (see relevant points above). Furthermore, placing the highest priority on mission success means placing mission success above crew safety. There are an unlimited number of candidate technical improvements, precursor missions and test programs that could potentially marginally improve the safety of the first Mars mission crew. But if all, or even a significant fraction of them, were attempted, the mission would never fly, and we would guarantee program failure achieved at infinite cost. Precursor activities might improve the chances of a given Mars mission, but they come at the cost of reducing the number of missions that can be flown, and they certainly cannot be allowed to proliferate to the point where they cut the number of actual exploration missions to zero. NASA’s human spaceflight program is being done at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, funds that could save tens of thousands of lives if spent elsewhere. It therefore has a moral obligation to deliver. The mission needs to come first.
  • The mission needs to be initiated. If the commitment is to be taken seriously, it needs to be initiated now. That means that rather than stop the robotic reconnaissance of Mars, it needs to be intensified, with probes of different types launched to the red planet at every opportunity. Furthermore, a practical plan needs to be drawn up for sending astronauts to Mars within a 10-year time frame using available or attainable technology, and the agency’s expenditures then need to be prioritized and directed towards actually implementing that plan. If the program is not started, it will never happen.

The American people want and deserve a space agency that is really going somewhere. Mars is the right destination, but if it is ever to be reached, the commitment needs to be real. Due to out-of-control deficits resulting from spending elsewhere in the federal budget, there will soon be a strong imperative for cuts. A NASA without a genuine goal will be a prime candidate for the block. It is time for a space program we can believe in.


Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society and the author of “The Case for Mars.” His latest book, “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism,” has just been published by Encounter Books.