NASA at a Crossroads. On to Mars or back to the Moon.

Over the last four presidential administrations NASA’s long term goals for human spaceflight have been pulled back and forth so drastically it almost appears as if we’ve been going backward rather than forward. While Bush#1 wanted to go to Mars, Bill Clinton said let’s build the Space Station that Ronald Reagan called for (at least that actually got done). Then Bush#2 said let’s go back to the Moon while Obama only suggested going to a near Earth asteroid as a stepping stone to Mars.

Now we have a new administration, one who seems to have even less of a plan for space than the ones I’ve just mentioned, so I’m gonna give’em one.

Of course my heart says Mars. I was fourteen years old when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and I can’t accept that we haven’t already gotten to Mars. I desperately hope that we will reach Mars during my lifetime so my heart says Mars!

My head says back to the Moon and here are my reasons why. Next year NASA will launch it’s first Space-Launch-System/Orion capsule mission and there is now talk of making that first mission a manned mission. Now the SLS launch vehicle is really just a modified version of the Ares V rocket that was conceived as a part of Bush#2’s ‘Constellation Program’ for going back to the Moon, and the Orion capsule isn’t even modified as far as I know. So, late next year we could very likely have two of the three major systems for a Moon landing. All we’d need is the lander and if NASA were given the direction and funding that could be accomplished in six years or so. The pictures below show the original Constellation Program ‘Parts’ and the, almost completed SLS-Orion for comparison.

NASA Constellation Program


Space Launch System

The resemblance is obvious. Again all we need to get back to the Moon is the Altair lander shown below or a similar lander.

Altair Lander

To go to Mars however, we would be starting from scratch. The idea of the Orion capsule taking anybody all the way to Mars is ludicrous. Not only doesn’t the combined SLS-Orion have the delta vee necessary for a Hohmann orbit  to Mars (that’s the lowest energy required transfer orbit), but there’s no way for three or four astronauts to be stuck inside the small Orion capsule for the more than a year long journey to Mars.

To go to Mars we need a Spaceship, a real one. Maybe not as fancy as the Hermes in the Martian or Discovery in 2001 but still an actual spaceship! And then when we get into Mars orbit we’re going to need a lander to get down to the surface, and even before we send that spaceship everybody always assumes that there will be supplies ‘pre-positioned’ on the surface of Mars awaiting the astronauts. None of this equipment is anywhere past the drawing board, there is absolutely no hardware existing or in the process of construction or even funded. Nothing.

I have a few more reasons for recommending the Moon. As I mentioned above, NASA is studying the concept of pre-positioning equipment and supplies before astronauts land on a planet or satellite. Well we could practice that technique on the Moon a lot more cheaply than trying it on Mars. Indeed, the Moon could be a practice range for landing a big rover, a habitat module, working out regular resupply missions and lot of the techniques needed for a Mars mission could be learned on the Moon.

It’s often been said that the Moon can serve as a stepping stone to Mars and since we’re almost equipped to do that let’s just do it.

The chaotic politics of the last 30 years has resulted in a complete lack of direct in NASA’s goals for human spaceflight. If the current administration were to authorize NASA to build a lander, and provide adequate funding, we could actually accomplish something in just a few years. We could at least get back to where we were when I was a teenager.

I’m not holding my breath!