Posted by: Kevin | May 2, 2007

Why the Mars Mission Sucks

On January 14th, 2004 President Bush unveiled his vision for NASA’s exploration of space in the coming decades.  His Plan included the completion of the International Space Station by 2010.  The Space Shuttle fleet would be retired in 2010 and replaced by a new launch vehicle, The Crew Exploration Vehicle (now called Orion).  The CEV will conduct manned flights by 2014 and a return to the moon “as early as 2015”.  The moon will serve as a jumping off point for further exploration to Mars and beyond.

First, the good points:  The Space Shuttle needs to go.  It’s expensive, risky and prone to malfunctions.  We can do better.  I also like that we are fulfilling our obligations to the international Space Station.  As Bush mentioned in his speech, we have a lot to learn about the effects of space on humans.  The Space station provides a platform on which we can learn how to combat those effects.  That’s about it for the good stuff.

As I mention above, the space shuttle needs to go, but why replace it with the CEV which is reminiscent of the Apollo crafts?  The CEV takes advantage of existing Apollo and Space Shuttle Technology which reduces risk but does nothing to advance the science of space exploration. 

The truth of manned space exploration is that the gains from the actual missions are relatively small.  Certainly we’ve learned more about the moon and the effects of space on humans.  However, those gains don’t stack up to the tremendous advances in science required to make those missions possible (i.e. modern computers, alloys, composites, lasers, Velcro, etc.).  So while Lockheed Martin will enjoy tremendous economic benefits from building the CEV, the rest of us won’t gain a thing.

My next complaint is that calling the moon a jumping off point to Mars is pure stupidity.  It would require sending a spacecraft up with enough fuel to 1 – leave the Earth, 2 – land on the moon, 3 – take off from the moon, 4 – land on mars, 5- take off from Mars.  Refueling on the moon would require getting that fuel from Earth to the Moon in a separate mission, as Moon’s silica rock surface doesn’t contain anything which would yield rocket fuel.  Dumping steps 2 and 3 by skipping the Moon altogether, saves a tremendous amount of fuel and doesn’t take any science benefit away from a Mars mission.

So what should NASA be doing?  First and foremost, the telescopes in orbit should be maintained where prudent and new and better ones should be added.  Second, the unmanned probes should continue to be launched.  These have done more to serve NASA’s core science mission than anything accomplished by the manned missions.

The next priority needs to be new thinking on how we put satellites and even people into orbit.  Rocket technology can put things into low Earth orbit at a cost of ~ $1,000 per Kg.  It costs closer to $20,000 per Kg to put things into geosynchronous orbit.  Aside from cost, there are limits to the effectiveness of chemical propulsion.  It takes a lot of rocket fuel to get anywhere and the farther we want to go, the more fuel we have to carry.

One alternative could be a Space Elevator.  While still theoretical, if we could ever make one it could provide a much cheaper way of putting objects in orbit.

300px-space_elevator_structural_diagramsvg.jpg
Help!  The Elevator is stuck
and I have to take a leak!

There are other forms of propulsion being discussed.  Some of them can be found here.  They run the gamut from currently feasible to pure science fiction.  Then again, many of the technologies required to make the Apollo missions possible must also have seemed like science fiction at the time.

My point is this.  Putting people in space, purely for the sake of putting them in space accomplishes very little.  With existing technologies, we will soon hit a point of diminishing returns for any further investment, if we haven’t already.  

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