Mars – Les Johnson
Mars. In the heart and mind of almost every science fiction fan I know, the mere mention of the planet Mars evokes a sense of “what if?” followed by wistful recollection of the many books, television shows and movies that have been made depicting the exploration of the Red Planet.
Who among us hasn’t wished they’d heard the live broadcast of Orson Wells’ The War of the Worlds back in 1938? A few of our older kin recall the disappointment of learning that Mars is a barren dessert and not the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs. We’ve experienced the joys of reading Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and the disappointment of seeing the truly mediocre television miniseries of the same name. And then there’s Ben Bova’s sweeping novel of Mars exploration titled, simply, Mars. And Kim Stanley Robinson’s series, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars; the list goes on. And now we get to see how Andy Weir’s survival story, The Martian, survives translation to the big screen. (I’ve already seen it – There was a special screening at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville on September 21. No spoilers here!) Almost every science fiction writer, including me, have written about Mars in either a book or short story. It’s in our blood.
Since I work for NASA and have looked extensively at the technologies required to send people to Mars, I am often asked how close we are to being able to take such a journey. [DISCLAIMER: The very fact that I work for NASA requires me to say that “the opinions expressed herein are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.”] Basing my opinion solely on information that is publicly available, the answer is… not straightforward. Let me break it into the three areas that Project Managers and Decision Makers (the ones with the money) use when they assess the viability of a project in an attempt to explain my answer.
This is the area where engineers, scientists and science fiction fans like to reside. (Yes, I consciously group scientists and engineers with science fiction fans together in the same category!) From a purely technical point of view:
1) We have or will soon have the rockets needed to send the huge amount of mass required to keep people alive for the 1.5 to 3.5 year round trip journey to and from Mars. CHECK
2) Thanks to years of experience on the International Space Station (ISS), we believe we have the life support systems required. We can recycle up to 90% of the water we need and a significant fraction of the oxygen. We can scrub the CO2 from the air and mitigate most of the adverse effects that come from weightlessness; though providing artificial gravity for the trip would be desirable. (We can probably do this also.) CHECK
3) We have or can soon have the in-space propulsion systems required to carry people and cargo from Earth orbit to Mars and back again. Chemical rockets can do the job, but they require a lot of fuel. A lot of fuel. (Did I say they require a lot of fuel?) With investment, we could use nuclear thermal rockets to cut the fuel load by approximately 50%. Alternatively, we could use electric propulsion to efficiently send much of the cargo required ahead of the crew, while sending the people with more traditional chemical propulsion. This approach would also decrease the amount of fuel required. CHECK
4) We know how to build the lander to take the crew to the surface of Mars and launch them back into space. No one has built the lander or the ascent vehicle yet, but we know we can. CHECK
5) We also know how to build a habitat for the astronauts to use when they are on the surface of Mars exploring. CHECK
6) There is one serious technical unknown that has split many in the community: the adverse effects of being exposed to space radiation for a long period of time. The exposure from a trip to Mars would almost certainly increase a person’s risk of getting some cancers. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a near-term fix for this problem so it might just have to be a risk they live with. Which brings me to…
Mounting a mission to Mars will take a long time.
1) You have to build the advocacy – either in governments or in the private sector. Someone has to be convinced to do it and figure out what technical solutions are the best to actually go and build. This will require a minimum of 2 years. (This is very optimistic!)
2) Once you decide to go, then you have to build the hardware. This takes more time than anyone wants it to take. Plan on 5 years, minimum, to design and build all of the complex systems described in the TECHNICAL section above.
3) Will there be an uncrewed test flight? Or will you fly these complex systems with people during the first mission in which they will be used? If you decide to have a dress rehearsal test flight, then you can add a minimum of 8 – 10 years to your schedule. That’s how long it will take to fly to and from Mars and then build the next set of hardware.
4) Finally, you fly to Mars. Conservatively, allow for a 3-year, round-trip mission.
The total time from the moment you decide you want to go until you return the astronauts home is 18 – 20 years with a test flight and a minimum of 10 years without. Ouch! And you have to keep your sponsors excited, with the money flowing, for the duration.
Someone has to pay for this mission and it will either be the tax payers, investors or a wealthy patron. Realistically, the project will cost somewhere between $10 Billion and $100 Billion. Now there are a few billionaires out there, but very few are willing to bet their entire net worth on a first mission to Mars. A consortium of billionaires could do it, but is this going to happen?
A corporation could certainly pay for it. The annual profits of Exxon, Coca Cola and Apple certainly put them in the category of ‘they have the money.’ But recall that corporations are in business to make money and a first mission to Mars is certain to be a money loser. How will they be able to convince shareholders that betting the company on a Mars mission is a good investment when there is no real economic benefit to be gained, at least in the near- to moderate-term.
That leaves governments and the taxpayers. There is precedent: Project Apollo, various 19th century colonial empires, and the American Louisiana Purchase and exploration. For you and me, $100B is a lot of money. But on the scale of what the United States government spends in a year, it is so little that it might as well be a rounding error. In 2015, NASA’s budget was ~$18B. The Department of Defense spent ~$598B. Medicare cost the taxpayers ~$522B. And the total spending of the United States government was ~$3.9 trillion — that’s ~$3900 billion, or enough to sponsor over 39 Mars missions.
What do we conclude from all this?
1) We want to go to Mars.
2) It is technically feasible to go to Mars.
3) It is logistically possible to go to Mars within a decade of deciding to do so.
4) A trip to Mars is affordable.
Why, then, aren’t we going to Mars?
Because it isn’t a priority. We, as a society, don’t want it badly enough.
Priorities can change. So get busy. Mars awaits!
Les is a physicist, a husband and father, a science fiction author for Baen books whose latest novel, Rescue Mode, is to be released in paperback September 29. You may learn more about Les, his work and his writing by visiting his website at www.lesjohnsonauthor.com, on Facebook and on Twitter (@LesAuthor).