Sunday, May 29, 2005

NASA On Mars: We'll Get There, When We Get There.

When Burt Rutan gave his press conference back when he was winning the X-Prize he promised that the private space program would pass NASA on its way to the planets. Well, NASA has released its preliminary roadmaps for exploring the solar system. (Click here) Burt's prediction has a chance of coming true. To understand why, let's look at the roadmap to Mars. (Click here.)

NASA plans to explore Mars in 4 phases. The value of the President's Space Vision Thing is evident in the plan. The ultimate goal of the roadmap is to send humans to Mars. The robotic missions and other tasks are all directed to fulfilling that goal. That's the theme, anyway. The reality is a whole 'nother thing. Here's a key quote from the executive summary:

The development of the Vision for Space Exploration has added a new dimension to a
vibrant and highly successful Mars exploration program. The existing scientific
objectives of Mars exploration can be seen in light of a long-range future that will
ultimately lead to human exploration of the planet, fulfilling a centuries-old dream of humankind. The goals of the present robotic Mars exploration program are well aligned with the needs of future human exploration and will enable the nation to make well-informed decisions regarding human mission capabilities, costs, risks, and priorities.

In other words NASA is saying is they've already got this really great robot exploration program that they fully intend to continue for as long as they can. They'll share the data they were going to obtain anyway with the human exploration program for use sometime in the distant future after every possibility permutation, risk, and cost has been examined and debated.

How are they going to help the manned program?

New areas of emphasis should be added to the program, including:
• Precursor measurements to characterize and assess Mars’ environment to ensure
• Technologies responsive to the more demanding needs of human travel
• Engineering infrastructure required for human safety and mission success
Human exploration of the Moon can provide important opportunities to verify and
validate systems and processes for human Mars exploration.

In other words, NASA will tweak their planned robotic program here and there in deference to the Space Vision Thing. In the meantime, NASA will continue to send robots to Mars and do some Lunar exploration.

When does NASA propose to send humans to Mars?

Within a few decades, we will be prepared to undertake an integrated robotic and human exploration program for detailed study of the planet Mars, leading to a new understanding of the evolution of the solar system and the development and evolution of life.

The "few decades" of the executive summary translates in Phase IV to this in 2035:

• Initiate human missions to Mars
• Explore Mars with a unified robotic and human system

That's right: 2035!

So there it is. NASA is in no hurry to put human footprints in the red sands of Mars. They don't even plan to initiate human missions to Mars until 2035. Initiating missions is not the same as sending a mission on that date. It means, the manned Mars program begins in 2035. That's 3 decades from now, 1 score and 10, the big Three Oh, 30 years.

There's got to be a faster way. Anyone? Anyone?


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Clark Lindsey's timeline suggests private lunar orbital trips being planned in 2012-2014. If you make some really gnarly assumptions from there you can assume a private lunar landing by 2020 (landing and taking back off aren't simple things). Once you have that capability and you still have significant on orbit fuel depots you might get a first Mars orbit by 2027. I suspect the first private Mars trips (what's the business model?) will not land on the surface but will be trips to Phobos and Deimos.

So if NASA does go and is in competition with private enterprise then yea, the private side _might_ beat NASA there by a handful of years. What I suspect will happen though is that private space will enable NASA to get there faster. NASA as customer, not NASA as competition.

So if you want to get to Mars the best thing you could do is get NASA to change its contracting methodologies and move to fixed price, not cost plus.
Thanks for commenting, Micheal. I appreciate your taking the time to read my post and to add your thoughts. I completely agree with you that breaking the government monopoly in the space program would speed up even the government's program to get to Mars. But I have to say I don't put much stock in NASA's 30 year roadmap to Mars. I think what the roadmap really means is that NASA is not going to send people to Mars until the government decides it's time to go. It's not going to be done according to the timeline in the roadmap. Instead, some unknown event in the future will give the government a reason to justify spending the money to send people to Mars. When that happens NASA will do what has to be done to send people to Mars. If we're lucky it'll be for a right reason such as some discovery on Mars that demands humans go there to investigate. It's more likely to be a wrong reason based on domestic or international politics. We can hope that if it is a wrong reason, it's one that will justify going there and staying rather than just going to prove we can get there and never going back.
We work like a horse.
We eat like a pig.
We like to play chicken.
You can get someone's goat.
We can be as slippery as a snake.
We get dog tired.
We can be as quiet as a mouse.
We can be as quick as a cat.
Some of us are as strong as an ox.
People try to buffalo others.
Some are as ugly as a toad.
We can be as gentle as a lamb.
Sometimes we are as happy as a lark.
Some of us drink like a fish.
We can be as proud as a peacock.
A few of us are as hairy as a gorilla.
You can get a frog in your throat.
We can be a lone wolf.
But I'm having a whale of a time!

You have a riveting web log
and undoubtedly must have
atypical & quiescent potential
for your intended readership.
May I suggest that you do
everything in your power to
honor your encyclopedic/omniscient
Designer/Architect as well
as your revering audience.

Please remember to never
restrict anyone's opportunities
for ascertaining uninterrupted
existence for their quintessence.

There is a time for everything,
a season for every activity
under heaven. A time to be
born and a time to die. A
time to plant and a time to
harvest. A time to kill and
a time to heal. A time to
tear down and a time to
rebuild. A time to cry and
a time to laugh. A time to
grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones
and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a
time to turn away. A time to
search and a time to lose. A
time to keep and a time to
throw away. A time to tear
and a time to mend. A time
to be quiet and a time to
speak up. A time to love
and a time to hate. A time
for war and a time for peace.

Best wishes for continued ascendancy,

P.S. One thing of which I am sure is
that the common culture of my youth
is gone for good. It was hollowed out
by the rise of ethnic "identity politics,"
then splintered beyond hope of repair
by the emergence of the web-based
technologies that so maximized and
facilitated cultural choice as to make
the broad-based offerings of the old
mass media look bland and unchallenging
by comparison."

'Thought & Humor' by Howdy
Cyber-Humor, Cyber-Thought
Cyber-Riddles for your divertissement!!!
tdr - great commentary on the snail-pace of the VSE with regards to human missions to Mars!

Two thoughts to add...

First, Mike Griffin doesn't seem to buy into the pokey pace and is apparently willing to consider alternatives. It might be wildly optimistic to hope that he can change the Mars paradigms to the extent that's needed, but I'm usually a wild optimist! (except when I'm a raging, pathetic pessimist, of course, heh heh)

Second, there's a small slice of space enthusiasts who benefit from all the delays: science fiction writers! I'm firmly in that camp now, and my sci-fi/mystery novel "Shadows of Medusa" won't become outdated until NASA mounts a manned Mars expedition. I'm totally joking, of course - forget the novel - I'd give my left arm to see a manned mission during the next ten years.

I'll be giving a talk at the upcoming Mars Society conference in Boulder... it will partially address Michael's comment about needing a Mars business plan. That's true - a business plan would be nice - but most current thinking focuses on the benefit side of the equation rather than the investment level. I ask, is it possible to make a Mars mission so cheap that a business plan doesn't have to rely upon the discovery of some rare isotope of unobtanium on Mars?

At the conference, I'll present my twelve "Medusa Motivators"... background concepts that contributed to the order-of-magnitude cheaper (simpler!) mission that's presented in the novel. FYI, in the novel, I use $0.5b/yr (or much less) as an investment goal for a simple, highly-focused Mars mission.

Should be a fun conference! I hope you and your blog-readers can make it to Boulder this summer. I'll also post the Medusa Motivator list on the novel's website (, once I get around to it... ;)
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