So, When Do We Land On Mars?

07/20/2009 10:06 AM |

“Every year these programs have to go through the budget process,” Carberry says. “Every year you have a place where things can go wrong. You never know how long it’s going to last. The longer a program goes on, the more likely it is to get cut.”

Speaking of which, have you ever heard of the Augustine Report? In 1990, fresh off the first Bush’s unveiling of his plans for the moon and Mars, Vice President Dan Quayle arranged for an independent review of the country’s space program to be headed by aerospace executive and former Under Secretary of the Army Norman Augustine. Given his boss’s recent announcements, Quayle was likely hoping Augustine’s report would reinforce the importance of manned space flights. Instead, Augustine came back with a review that recommended science, not exploration, be NASA’s top priority. As for the president’s plans for a mission to Mars, Augustine suggested it “be configured to an open-ended schedule, tailored to match the availability of funds.” Or, in other words, “Sounds great! Just make sure you don’t actually spend any money on it…”

I bring this up because the Obama administration recently called for its own independent review of the space program. And who did they tap to chair this review? Why, none other than Norman Augustine.

Is this 1990 all over again? Is Norm about to once again stomp out a nation’s Martian dreams? Who can say? (For those interested, the report is due out this August. You can go here to add your own input to the process.) But regardless of the commission’s findings, the fact that Augustine was tapped to head it suggests certain things about the administration’s general disposition towards NASA’s exploratory wing. Given past history, he’s not exactly the first guy you’d pick if you were looking for an enthusiastic two thumbs up.

Nor is he alone in this. Manned space flight has no shortage of critics. As awesome as a mission to Mars might sound (and you have to admit it sounds pretty ridiculously awesome), there’s an argument to be made (and certainly people are making it) that sending humans into space is simply too dangerous and costly an enterprise to justify the benefits, particularly given the work done of late with unmanned rovers and probes.

It’s a question of motivations. We didn’t start the Apollo program half a century ago in the name of science. We started it in the name of beating the Russians. It was, as Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff, a form of single combat. Cold War fears focused our minds and money for the better part of a decade, and at the end of it we landed a man on the moon. Today, though, we have different concerns, none of which seem to be particularly pushing us in the direction of a trip to Mars. We have plans to make it happen, and maybe it will. Then again, maybe it won’t. Twenty-five years is an awfully long time to hold a public’s (and a bureaucracy’s) attention — especially when you don’t have all that strong a grasp on it anymore.

It’s a curious situation. For millennia people have watched the sky and dreamed of visiting other planets. Now we’ve reached the point where we very likely could if we cared to. We just aren’t quite sure it’s worth the bother.

One Comment

  • Bravo, Mr. Bonislawski, for a solid take on the issue. I agree that the U.S. government doesn’t have, or rather won’t allocate sufficient funds to do a manned Mars mission any time soon but they shouldn’t have to. Seems to me that with modern telecommunications we could allow just about anybody who wants to to send materiel to Mars to wait in a parking orbit for use by humans there.

    Why does that matter? Because shipping just cargo is much cheaper per pound that shipping everything in one vessel, especially if you can afford to use a slower path. MUCH cheaper.

    Afaic, NASA should announce that if you can meet certain specs and can get your stuff there for Marsnauts to use, they’ll use it. That being done, we should see no shortage of states, companies and just plain old enthusiasts boosting their signature goods for use by Our Proud Mars Heroes. It won’t be the arrogant ones (NY, California, etc.) who already get plenty of publicity. It’ll the insecure ones. The ones who have decent revenues and whose state legislatures will be delighted to say “we’re just as good as you are and we’ll prove it!” North Carolina will subcontract to Research Triangle firms to ship local blueberries and clothes made of their cotton. Wisconsin will ship cheese. San Antonio will ship, I dunno, barbeque.

    But the point is, with payloads that can be as small as five or ten pounds and the ability to boost fast and travel slow (both save TONS of fuel per pound and cut rocket size waaay down), technology is more than good enough to allow this kind of thing right now.

    And the beauty part? Managed well, it’ll cost NASA *maybe* ten cents on the dollar to doing it themselves.