Claude Plymate is the Telescope Engineer/Chief Observer at Big Bear Solar Observatory in California, and is the former chief wrangler of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory Arizona for many years. He is a regular contributor to Musical Milliner.
It is true that we currently do not have the technology to allow a human trip to Mars. Now that the shuttle has been retired (and rightfully so), the U.S. doesn’t even have a rocket that can get humans to low Earth orbit! Forty years ago, however, that was not the case. The Saturn-V rocket used for the Apollo lunar program could have been repurposed for a Mars mission. It would have taken more than a single launch of even the mighty Saturn-V for a Mars mission but it would have been feasible. Now that we finally retired the Space Shuttle, we are free to consider the next generation of boosters that will again be capable of taking us beyond Low
Earth Orbit (LEO).
NASA recently announced the Space Launch System (SLS). If funded, SLS will be a heavy lift vehicle derived from both Shuttle and Apollo-era technology. The SLS will initially have a payload capability to LEO of just over 1/2 that of the Saturn-V. The eventual plan is to continue to upgrade its lift capacity with larger strap-on boosters. This is expected to ultimately give it a payload to LEO of slightly greater than that of the Saturn-V. Unfortunately, the “evolved” boosters are scheduled to not be available before 2030.
SpaceX has proposed several very intriguing projects and has an amazing track record of following through on its claims by delivering working hardware. Its Falcon 9 rocket topped with their Dragon capsule has already flown and is scheduled to fly a resupply mission to the Space Station (ISS) soon. Falcon 9 (F-9) currently can only deliver about 1/2 of what the Space Shuttle could to orbit, good enough to get supplies and astronauts to and from the ISS but isn’t of a class necessary to do much more. SpaceX has, however, announced the Falcon Heavy. The Heavy is effectively three F-9 rockets strapped together! This simple evolution of the proven F-9 gives a projected launch payload of about 1 1/2 Shuttles! Now that’s beginning to get to the point that we can begin designing missions. But wait there’s more… SpaceX has proposed the eventual development of a Falcon X and derivative rockets dubbed the Falcon X Heavy & Falcon
XX (what SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, has called the BFR for Big F@$#ing Rocket!). The Falcon XX would have a payload exceeding that of either the Saturn-V or SLS.
Below is a table comparing some current & proposed rocket payloads to LEO:
What I’m attempting to point out is that very capable Mars rockets are well within current technology and were even produced using 1960’s technology!
It’s an undeniable fact that a human mission to Mars would be expensive. I typically hear conservative estimates ranging somewhere in the ballpark of $150 Billion. Any way you look at it, that is a lot of money – roughly $500 for every US citizen. Keep in mind that any such program would be spread over at least 10 years which makes the cost per year around $15 Billion/yr. $15 billion is still a heap of money but less than the current annual NASA budget. (Don’t think, however, that I’m advocating dedicating the entire NASA budget to a Mars mission. NASA does a lot of other very important programs. I wouldn’t want to see the budgets for those other important programs get consumed.) It would seem that we either need to find ways of getting the costs down or increase the funding. Increasing budgets do not seem likelyin the current economic/political climate. If we want to go to Mars, we need to find a cheaper
Let’s examine why space flight tends to be so extremely expensive. One reason is that you much carry all of the fuel, hardware and resources for the return trip on the outward leg of the journey. Picture it this way; imagine if to fly from San Francisco to New York, the plane had to carry all it needed for the return flight – fuel, food, water, etc. The plane wouldn’t need to be just twice as large to carry it all; it would need to be MUCH larger. To carry the extra fuel and supplies, the plane would need to be built much stronger and heavier. This heavier plane would need larger engines to fly requiring yet more fuel which would require a bigger heavier plane… it becomes a vicious cycle. Costs quickly spiral out of control leading to the inevitable conclusion that transcontinental flight is simply not practical! We get around this by not carrying everything needed for the entire trip. Planes are refueled and restocked before their return flights. Estimates that I’ve seen indicate that somewhere around 90% of the cost of space missions are due to the penalty paid for the return trip. Think back to the iconic images showing the colossal Saturn-V sitting on the launch pad before heading off to the Moon. All that immense hardware was used up just to return three guys and some rocks sardined in that little
So in this era of ever tightening budgets, how might we design an affordable human mission to Mars? What if we simply cut out all those massive costs accrued by the return flight? Now don’t be aghast. I’m not suggesting some suicide mission. Keep in mind, that my original justification for going to Mars was the eventual goal of colonization. Why not just start the process from the outset?
A one-way trip should be able to be carried out for around 10% the cost of a round trip mission – somewhere in the $15 billion ballpark range. In an era of $100 billion bailouts and Trillion dollar wars, this sounds like a bargain. Especially when put in the context of safeguarding against the potential extinction of humanity on this planet. I often hear economists say that the way out of our economic slump is to create jobs. What could be a more noble jobs creation plan than mobilizing our high tech industries and stimulating universities to develop technologies for our expansion into the solar system and the long-term safeguarding of our species? Add to this that historically every dollar invested in space has returned about $7 to the economy and you have a true win-win scenario. Perhaps what our economy really needs is an “Occupy Mars” movement.
The cost estimate above is admittedly rather simplistic and overly optimistic. Sustaining a Martian colony would require significantly more resources than a simple Apollo style “flats-and-footprints” out-and-back mission. They would need continued supplies, oxygen enriched atmosphere to breathe, water, pressurized habitats in which to live and work, greenhouses to grow food, spare parts and backup equipment and, of course, power. (A growing colony would need ever-growing sources of power.) Spreading these costs over the lifetime of the project still makes it comfortably affordable within existing budgets even if we assume it will end up costing
several times the overly simplistic estimate above.
Early settlers would have to be dependent on periodic resupply missions. I would envision that every couple of years when a launch window opens up, another ship would be scheduled to deliver more supplies, equipment and another batch of pilgrims. In this way, the initial base would naturally grow over time as infrastructure and population is added, evolving from base
to colony to settlement and eventually to society.
A high priority from the start would have to be placed on achieving self-sufficiency. Not only is it of economic interest for a Mars society to become self-reliant, it would be too risky to depend indefinitely on the Earth. It is inevitable that a supply mission will someday fail or changes to Earth bound economics, politics or public support might leave the new Martians on their own. For their own security, they would have to be able to take care of themselves as soon as possible.
Admittedly, this is an edgy high risk concept. Who could we find to sign up for such a dangerous mission, one that at very best would leave them with very little likelihood of ever returning t friends and family? Honestly, I think there would be no shortage of volunteers! Those that go would become legends. Their names would go down in history as the founders of a new world. I expect that humanity would be mesmerized by the daily drama. Each settler would become heroes on TWO worlds! Who wouldn’t dream of being part of such an historic project?
In light of the huge economic problems we’re currently in, when should such an epic project begin? My opinion is if not now then when? A one-way approach to Mars is affordable and starts down the path of making humanity a multi-planet society from its inception. I, therefore, suggest that our mantra be “Mars – one way to stay!”