I’ve long been a supporter of space exploration. It is often one of the few bright spots in the world of government-funded programs. However, I have come to realize that it’s that same government that has crippled our ventures in the final frontier. Nearly every new president rolls out a new “vision” for NASA, often discarding whatever the previous leader had promoted. Funding is just potential “get votes” for visionless Congress and has largely been stagnate as they prefer to send money to other countries or bailout only the companies that support them. So space exploration moves along in fits and starts. I was pleased to see that Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin largely shares these views in his new book Mission to Mars.
For decades, Buzz has championed our expansion in space and in this new book discusses how our government-run program has both succeeded and failed. He also sees the recent growth in private efforts in space travel as a new turning point on the frontier. This is indeed correct, and creating an environment where these efforts can continue to thrive and expand is critical. NASA has already begun relying on private industry to supply the International Space Station. Soon they will deliver astronauts and companies have begun using the facilities that once launched the shuttles. NASA has laid the groundwork, now the people must take over. If they do, space will no longer be the realm of the few.
Buzz details how NASA shouldn’t be tied up in returning people to the Moon. Certainly they should be involved in technology transfer, training, design and U.S. participation, but their main thrusts should be elsewhere. They went to the Moon 45 years ago. Time to trailblaze elsewhere. And that place is Mars.
The Apollo veteran outlines his cycler design which would put spacecraft in continuous flight between Mars and Earth. It’s an ingenious design that uses physics and reusable vehicles. Is it the only option? No, and he briefly mentions the Mars Direct plan that Robert Zubrin laid out years ago. It uses current technology and in-situ use of resources on Mars to drastically lower costs of a mission. It was the baseline for NASA plans for a time. Buzz’s plan has some overlap with Zubrin’s, though I think both can be used. Mars Direct is still the simplest way for early missions to reach Mars. Later, it could be used in tandem with cyclers to increase travel opportunities to Mars (and I’m sure technology will improve both methods, see Case for Mars for more on Mars Direct).
We also read on the potential of mining asteroids and the real need to detect and deflect ones that threaten Earth. Buzz’s plan to first land humans on the Martian moon Phobos before Mars seems an unnecessary detour, though the satellite does have potential for the outposts he describes. He implores that whomever is president in 2019 to use the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 to commit to a Mars mission. I think this would be another empty vision from our politicians who cannot see past another election cycle. There is no Cold War to drive the project. Just as the people are taking over spaceflight, travel beyond our world will be up to them as well (perhaps Mars One).
NASA will surely be a part of it and maybe enough forward-thinking people exist in our government to support it. They can justify it anyway they want to: Jobs, technology, education, exploration, resources. It would certainly be a huge step forward against all of our steps backwards.
In 1989, Buzz stood on stage as President George Bush put forth a plan to reach Mars in 2019. The poorly conceived plan went no where. Now we are talking about announcing a mission in 2019 that won’t even happen for many years after. That, to me, isn’t very visionary. We need to get past the government-style pushing off the future to some indeterminate time that often never arrives. Buzz asks, “America, do you still dream great dreams?”