NASA’s current plan for sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s is an appropriately ambitious goal, but it can’t be realized until the 2050s at the earliest without spending billions of dollars more annually, according to a congressionally mandated report by the National Research Council released Wednesday.
Above all, the 286-page report warns Congress that keeping NASA on its current trajectory will result in the space agency going nowhere.
We need to use an innovative Apollo approach – incremental steps to get to the goal – rather than use what has worked previously.
Building a monolithic, heavy lify, chemical rocket (the SLS) to get from the Earth’s surface to Mars is simply not the cheapest, not the best approach, in my opinion. It expends a lot of money on something others will do cheaply – getting to low Earth orbit. It puts the lives of the astronauts in danger by taking so long to get there, placing them on the surface, getting them off the surface and then getting them back home. Expensive and time consuming.
And it is not like the incremental one we used to get to the Moon – one man, two men, three men, space walks, travel around the moon, etc.
In many ways, the current plan is driven more by politics than by scientific reasoning. Both the manned and unmanned sections of NASA’s focus are constantly battling over money. The SLS is the approach the maned side has taken. They fear that changing this will weaken them.
But I have an approach that harnesses both the manned and unmanned segments.
Here is what I suggest –
1) Focus post-LEO: Leave getting off the planet and to low Earth orbit to the cheaper commercial approaches. Focus on technologies that work from LEO outward – particularly high powered ionic engines which hold the promise of getting to Mars in 2 months.
2) Humanity at the Moon’s L2 : Set up a manned outpost on the far side of the moon. This will not only be farther than humans have ever been but also allows virtual telerobotic exploration of the Moon because the outpost is so close. Both manned and unmanned segments benefit.
3) Mining in Space: Send an unmanned probe to an asteroid and move it into orbit around the Moon, where the manned outpost can control examination and mining of the resources, particularly the fuel needed to power the Ionic engines. Both manned and unmanned segments benefit.
4) To Mars: Once the first 3 steps have been accomplished, simply apply them to Mars – a) use ionic engines to move supplies and unmanned robots to set up an outpost on one of the Martian moons; b) send men to that outpost where they will be protected from high radiation; c) use the telerobotic knowledge gained to send unmanned exploration robots to the surface of Mars; d) the robots can build the habitats needed on the surface while mining provides more fuel for the return. Both manned and unmanned segments benefit.
With proper ion engine design, we could get to Mars in 2 months not 6 or longer, meaning the astronauts are not exposed to radiation as long. With the information we learn from the habitat at the Moon, we will know how to create a similar one anywhere.
This incremental approach harnesses expertise from both the manned an unmanned wings of NASA, getting both working with each other rather than against other.
And we learn so much more than simply building a bigger rocket.