Fifteen years ago, aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin published The Case for Mars, and issued a clarion call to his fellow scientists, and the people of Earth. We need to plan our Mars colony, and we need to do it now.
Zubrin has released an updated and revised version of his classic book, outlining the most realistic way to get ourselves to Mars and start setting up a human society there. Smart, idealistic, and pragmatic, this book is more important than ever. And we've got an excerpt from it.
Photo of a Martian sand dune by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.
Preface to the Revised Edition
Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.
- William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
A lot has happened in the 15 years since The Case for Mars was first published. A string of robotic mission were launched to the Red Planet, including Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor in late 1996, Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999, Mars Odyssey in 2001, Spirit, Opportunity, and Mars Express in 2003, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2005, and Phoenix in 2007. With the exception of the 1999 flights, all of these missions have been brilliantly successful. As a result, our knowledge of the planet has greatly increased.
We now know for certain that Mars was once a warm and wet planet, possessing not only ponds and streams, but oceans of water on its surface, and continued to have an active hydrosphere for a period on the order of a billion years – a span five times as long as the time it took for life to appear on Earth after there was liquid water here. Thus, if the theory is correct that life is a natural phenomenon emerging from chemistry wherever there is liquid water, various minerals, and a sufficient period of time, then life must have appeared on Mars.
Furthermore, we know that much of that water remains on that planet today as ice or frozen mud, with the soil of continent-sized regions of the planet assessed as being more than 60 percent water by weight. Not only that, we have discovered that Mars has liquid water, not on the surface, but underground, where geothermal heating has warmed it to create environments capable of providing a home for life on Mars today. We have found places where water flowed out of the underground water table and down the slopes of craters within the past ten years. Indeed, we have detected methane emissions characteristic of subterranean microbial life emerging from vents in the Martian surface. These are either the signatures of Martian life, or the proof of subsurface hydrothermal environments fully suitable for life. Either way, they indentify exactly the places where astronauts could go, drill, and bring up water samples whose contents would reveal to us the truth about the nature, prevalence, and potential diversity of life in the universe.
Beyond that we have mapped the mineral content and topography of the planet from orbit, and photographed it in sufficient detail to be able to see and guide our small robotic rovers and to identify ideal landing sites and travel routes for future human explorers.
So now we know why we should go, and where we should go. But are we on our way? Not yet. In startling contrast to the brilliant and continuing success of the robotic Mars exploration program, over the fifteen years since the first publication of this book, NASA's human spaceflight program has made no progress whatsoever. The point requires emphasis. Aside from the information returned by the robots, NASA today is no better prepared to send humans to Mars than it was in 1996.
How can that be? The most frequent answer is lack of money. If only NASA had the kind of funding it did during the Apollo era, it is claimed, we would see great accomplishments in human spaceflight. This excuse, however, is completely false. The fact of the matter is that in today's dollars, the average NASA budget between 1961 (when President Kennedy gave his speech announcing the Apollo program) and 1973 (when the final Apollo-Skylab mission was flown) was $19 billion per year, nearly exactly the same as NASA's budget is today, and has been, in round numbers, since about 1990.
Nor is it the case that the Apollo era NASA was able to accomplish more in the human spaceflight area because it did so at the expense of robotic exploration. In fact, during that period the unmanned exploration program was more active than it has been over the past 15 years, with some 40 lunar and planetary probes launched. In fact, if we extend our baseline to 15 years, matching the 1961 to 1975 period against 1996 to 2010, we find that the earlier NASA launched 10 Mars probes with 8 successes, nearly identical (but slightly superior) in flight rate and batting average to the modern NASA's track record of 9 Mars probes with 7 successes.
Yes, it is true that the NASA budget during the 1960's got a larger share of federal outlays, but that is not because NASA was richer, but because the nation was smaller and poorer. During the 1960s, America's population was 60 percent what it is today, and its GNP was 25 percent as great. These were hardly advantages for Apollo.
Furthermore, the technology available to America a half century ago was vastly inferior to that of today. The men who designed Apollo did their calculations on slide rules, capable of performing, at most, one calculation per second, not computers doing billions. Yet they solved all the problems necessary to take us from nearly zero human spaceflight capability to landing men on the moon and returning them to Earth in eight years.
As this book will show in detail, from a technological point of view, we are much better prepared to send humans to Mars today than they were to get men to the Moon in 1961. Yet they got there is 8 years. We've gone nowhere in the past three and a half decades.
So, the question is, what did NASA have then that it doesn't have now?
The answer is Resolution.
By resolution, I mean that quality associated with being able to determine what it is you truly want to accomplish, committing to that objective, creating a plan to achieve it, and then doing what is necessary to actually implement that plan.
During the Apollo period, that is how America's human spaceflight program operated. The objective was clear – get men to the moon and back by the end of the decade - the commitment to it was absolute. Accordingly, a plan was devised to achieve that goal in accord with that schedule, vehicle designs were created to implement that plan, technologies were developed to enable those vehicles, then the vehicles were built and the missions were flown.
The robotic space program also operated in that manner at that time, and continues to do so today. That is why it continues to deliver ever greater achievements.
It is not the fact that the unmanned exploration program employs robots that has made it a success. Rather it owes its success to the fact that the people running it are using their brains.
In contrast NASA's human spaceflight program has abandoned this rational approach entirely. Instead of designing things to implement plans, it develops things and then tries to find some use for them. It created the Space Shuttle without any clear idea of what it would be for, and thus it has proved to be of very limited value for supporting human space exploration.
The International Space Station (ISS) was conceived of for the purpose of giving the Shuttle something to do, but requiring that the Station be built by the Shuttle has vastly increased the Station program costs and risks, over-complexified its design, and limited its size, while burdening it with a nightmare twenty-year assembly launch sequence. In contrast, the simpler yet bigger Skylab was designed and built in 4 years, and launched in 1 day. Moreover, the ISS itself has no rational purpose commensurate with its cost, risk, or multi-decadal preoccupation of the agency's time. The fact that this dismal assessment of the Station's value, while unacknowledged, is generally understood, was made amply clear by the sequel to the February 1, 2003 Columbia disaster. Coming down harshly on the space agency, the accident review committee chairman Admiral Harold Gehman pronounced that "if we are to accept the costs and risks of human spaceflight, we need to have goals worthy of those costs and risks." In response, the Bush administration did not even attempt to make the case that the ISS program met that standard. Instead it launched a new imitative to give NASA human spaceflight program something worthwhile to do, specifically a return to the Moon by 2020.
While it is true that flying to the Moon is certainly a more interesting activity than hanging out in a space station in low Earth orbit, creating urine and stool samples so that guinea pig scientists can catalog still more data on the progressive deterioration of human physiology in zero-gravity (which is completely unnecessary, since any competent Mars mission designer would employ artificial gravity aboard his interplanetary spacecraft in order to avoid such effects – unless, of course, he was mutilating his design in order to provide justification for Space Station research), it still fails the test of rationality. We have, after all, been to the Moon six times. Over 300 kilograms of lunar material has been returned to Earth, and few people show any active interest in them. The big picture regarding the nature of lunar geology is already understood, with further work largely a matter of filling in details. Moreover, the whole subject is of limited interest anyway, trivial in fact, in comparison with the questions of the origins and fundamental nature of life that would be addressed by the human exploration of Mars. And as to the matters of national pride and glory, self and world image, and reassertion of our will as a people to embrace and meet new challenges, one wonders what it says about America if the highest aspiration of our space program is to repeat a mission it accomplished a half century before.
Notwithstanding the above, an even bigger problem with the Bush administration's goal of returning to the Moon was that it was not a real goal at all. Rather it was an attempt to create sizzle, without the steak, since as proclaimed in 2004 for achievement by the year 2020, it did not actually require NASA to do anything towards its fulfillment during the administration's time in office, even assuming a second term. Thus five more Bush years went by, without any Moon mission hardware being built, after which the putative program was handed off to the Obama administration, which had no stake in it.
Thus orphaned, without political protection, without any valid or compelling reason for existence, and without any material progress to show for itself, the program was predictably cancelled. In its place, the Obama administration put first a "flexible path" concept without even a pretense of purpose. Then, when that was found too absurd for even Congress to bear, a pseudo-goal of reaching a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 (i.e. beyond the time horizon requiring any action by the world of the present) was duly proclaimed, and ignored. However, since there are, after all, 27 swing electoral votes in Florida, the administration set forth a fanciful assortment of new projects, including spending several billion dollars to refurbish the Shuttle launch pads after the shuttle stops flying, developing a high-power electric thruster without the very large space nuclear reactor required to drive it, building an orbiting refueling station to service interplanetary spaceships that do not exist, and creating a space capsule that can fly astronauts down from orbit but not up.
None of these strange projects serve any useful purpose, nor could any other alternative random set, not merely because they don't fit together into any functional combination, but because, in the absence of a goal, there is no useful purpose for them to serve. Without question, they'll all be cancelled when Obama leave's office, it not before, without producing anything useful, and after spending another 40 or 80 billion dollars and wasting another 4 to 8 years, we'll be back to square one once again.
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
The American people want and deserve a space program that really is going somewhere. But no goal can be sustained unless it can be backed up, and not by "rationales," but by reasons.
There are real and vital reasons why we should venture to Mars. It is the key to unlocking the secret of life in the universe. It is the challenge to adventure that will inspire millions of young people to enter science and engineering, and whose acceptance will reaffirm the nature of our society as a nation of pioneers. It is the door to an open future, a new frontier on a new world, a planet that can be settled, the beginning of humanity's career as a spacefaring species, with no limits to its resources or aspirations, as it continues to push outward into the infinite universe beyond.
For the science, for the challenge, for the future; that's why we should go to Mars.
The only meaningful counterargument against launching a humans to Mars initiative is the assertion that we cannot do it. This claim, however, is completely false.
We would need a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLV), which we lack, say the opponents, and it would take vast sums and extended periods of time to create one - $36 billion and 12 years, according to the Obama administration's blue-ribbon human spaceflight review panel. This is nonsense. We flew our first heavy lift vehicle, the Saturn V, in 1967, following a 5 year development program during which we had to invent it as we went along. Today we know exactly what to do. As to cost, SpaceX company president Elon Musk testified directly to the panel that he would be willing to develop a 100 tonne to orbit class HLV for a fixed-price contract of $2.5 billion. This claim is very credible, since SpaceX recently developed and flew a 10 tonne to orbit medium lifter for a total program cost of $300 million. Indeed Lockheed Martin, the aerospace giant formerly led by panel chairman Norm Augustine, has designs for HLVs whose development it prices at $4 billion.
A human Mars lander would require a huge parachute, the opponents say, much bigger than anything we have used. A large parachute? Please, give me a break. If we could send men to the Moon, we can certainly make a large parachute. Or if we didn't care to do so, we could just use a more modest sized parachute system and complete the landing deceleration using rockets.
It takes too long to get to Mars, they say, so we have to delay launching the initiative until we can develop radically more advanced types of space propulsion capable of getting us there much faster. Wrong. Using existing chemical propulsion, we can go from Earth to Mars in 6 months, and in fact the Mars Odyssey spacecraft did exactly that in 2001. Trips of this duration are quite manageable by humans. In fact, it's the standard tour that scores of astronauts and cosmonauts have already performed aboard Russian space station Mir and the ISS.
We would need a nuclear reactor to power our base on the Martian surface, they say, and we don't have one. True. But we fielded our first practical nuclear reactor in this country, the one that powered the submarine Nautilus, in 1952, and the laws of physics haven't changed much since. We had nuclear power before we had color TV, passenger jets, or push button telephones. Nukes are 1940s technology. We can certainly build the little one needed to power a Mars base.
Cosmic rays, solar flares, zero-gravity health effects, psychological factors, dust storms, life support systems, excessive cost - the list of alleged show stoppers put forward by the naysayers goes on and on. They're wrong on every point.
In this book I will prove that to you. I will lay out in detail a plan for a near-term human Mars exploration that negates or solves every single one of these difficulties, accomplished using technology that we possess today.
The human exploration of Mars is not a task for some future generation. It is a task for ours.
We hold it in our power to begin the world anew.
Let's do it.
Excerpted from The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must by Robert Zubrin. Copyright © 2011 by Robert Zubrin. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
The updated version of The Case for Mars is available now on Amazon and at your local bookstore.