There seems to be a good reason that Mars, the fourth planet from the sun, is named after the mythological “god of war” … mounting a manned mission there isn’t going to happen without a fight. And that fight will have battles waged on at least three fronts: political, logistical and economic.
President Barack Obama announced his plan for a Mars mission during a “tax day” April 15 Space Summit at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, an election battleground state where thousands of jobs are on the line following the retirement of the country’s aging space shuttle fleet this fall. In February, the president effectively cancelled the behind schedule/over budget Constellation moon program, which was to have taken Americans back to the moon by 2020. Space experts, industry insiders, lawmakers and even a few astronauts have voiced concerns that the U.S. has tendered its resignation as a world space leader.
During the summit, Mr. Obama told a crowd of some 200 people he understood their worries and addressed critics, including Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. “The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am. But we’ve got to do it in a smart way,” he said to applause. “We’ve been there before,” the president bluntly told supporters of returning to the moon. “There’s a lot more space to explore and a lot more to learn when we do.”
Pledging a “transformative agenda” for NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), Mr. Obama described his ambitious vision: by 2025, develop spacecraft capable of journeys into deep space; by 2035, send astronauts to a nearby asteroid, into orbit around Mars and possibly land there. “And I expect to be around to see it,” he said. The president did not provide any specific detail as to how all this would be achieved.
An Australian news outlet lauded Obama’s plan as “a bold new course for the future of U.S. space travel.” Skeptics, however, question whether Mr. Obama is “boldly going where no man has gone before,” or just blithely going where his predecessor has already been.
President George W. Bush made a similar play for the “red planet” in 2004, which drew scoffs from some in the media. A New York Times Op/Ed back then commented that Bush’s idea was “devoid of scientific merit, fraught with risk to human lives and absurdly expensive.”
Bush was kicked to the curb internationally, too. That same Aussie news outlet called Bush’s Mars plan the “down under” equivalent of making as much sense as a screen door on a submarine. Many in the media suggested Bush was pushing Mars to distract attention from an unpopular war in the Middle East and get re-elected.
The press has, curiously, had no such problem with Mr. Obama. “He has learned an important lesson from the yearlong struggle to pass health care reform. He needs to get involved early and not leave it to subordinates to defend plans that will upend vested interests,” the Times wrote.
In any case, one thing both the Obama and Bush plans have in common is the lack of a price tag. That’s not unusual, mind you … no one had any idea how much it would cost to fulfill President Kennedy’s early 1960s charge to go the moon and back by the end of that decade.
And that’s the thing about manned space exploration. Like it or not, the budgets are made up as you go along. Budgets are traditionally based on some idea of how a process has been done before. Not so with space travel. They’re all different. It would be nice to simply adapt a budget from the Apollo missions and rework it for Mars, but reality is, it doesn’t work that way. Some line items might translate, but most simply won’t. New hardware and software must be fabricated, mission parameters defined and all the gear and support systems needed built — from scratch — accordingly.
Numerous scientists also suggest the moon has many advantages, and should not be ignored in any manned Mars mission. A moon base would provide more efficient vehicle assembly and launching capability, due to its much lower gravity. The moon also has many elements that can be used as fuel. Many think the short-term costs of a moon base would help balance out larger, longer-term expenses involved with going to Mars.
In his speech, the president said he wants to accelerate development of a large, heavy-lift rocket by 2015 to carry astronauts beyond low-earth orbit. Afterward, he took a look at a Falcon 9 rocket set to lift off in a test next month conducted by SpaceX, a private company. The Obama administration has allocated $6 billion to support such private companies in developing rockets to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.
Obama said he’ll likely salvage the Constellation’s Orion crew capsule, which will now serve as an emergency escape vehicle at the International Space Station. That, the president indicated, would free American astronauts from having to rely on Russia’s Soyuz capsule to return to Earth in an emergency, but he said little or nothing about Russia’s recent announcement that it will double fees to boost American crews to the space station.
Space companies, on the other hand, seemed to welcome the plan, saying it may create thousands of new jobs almost immediately. “The commercial space industry is eager to do our part to hire the experienced workers in Florida and elsewhere who are being transitioned from the retiring space shuttle,” said Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems Mark Sirangelo, who also chairs the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
The Obama administration estimates the new plan would create 2,500 jobs in the Cape Canaveral area, but that figure has only irritated an already discontented and skeptical space community that expects to lose 9,000 Kennedy Space Center jobs between the end of the shuttle program and the scuttled Constellation project. The president proposed a $40 million fund to transition the workforce for new opportunities and help reshape the regional economy around NASA’s Florida facilities.
It’ll need it. Space Center job losses as well as job losses to service industries which support the Space Center could be crippling. “It’s not just the local community that will be affected. It’ll be the whole nation. We won’t be No. 1 in space anymore,” said Karan Conklin, who oversees the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum in Titusville, Fla.
Obama’s proposed changes drew criticism from several astronauts, such as Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and Apollo 11 astronaut Armstrong, who rarely speaks on such matters, but emerged briefly from his self-imposed seclusion to comment that “the U.S. space program, long the world leader, is at risk of being reduced to a second- or even third-rate stature.”
Curiously, the first two men on the moon appear to have differing views. Armstrong’s Apollo 11 crew mate, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who flew with Obama to Cape Canaveral, said he backs the president’s plan. America’s first woman in space, Sally Ride, who has been working to foster science education particularly among young women, didn’t take on the president directly, but told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, “I’m depressed, frankly, at our inability to launch.”
Research for this story came from reports on Reuters, NewsRealBlog.com and Fox News, as well as NASA.gov.