The Case for an American Manned Mars Mission

Article excerpt

NASA has assumed that any manned Mars mission will be an International one. Given the problems with the International Space Station and the inherent problems associated with U.S. participation in aerospace projects, the case for an international program is weaker than might generally be appreciated. A U.S. Mission would be simpler and less costly in the long term.

Key Word: NASA, Mars, spaceflight, planetary exploration, International Aerospace Programs

The goal of America's human spaceflight program - openly stated or not is the exploration of Mars Louis Friedman, The Planetary Society

America is a great nation. Great nations do great deeds. Sometimes America develops a cure for polio or anew treatment for diabetes. Sometimes we carefully place evil empires in the ash heap of history, and once upon a time we flew to the moon. Since then, the space program had not achieved the kind of great things it once seemed to promise. The space shuttle is not cheap reusable space truck it was supposed to be. The space station is moving ahead slowly and painfully - partly because of politics (though these problems have eased of late) and partly because the Russians are in deep trouble and don't want to admit it.

In July, 1989, when George Bush laid out his idea for what America's manned space program should look like, he split it into three parts - one, the space station, two, a return to the moon, and three, a mission to Mars. This was exactly the program that space enthusiasts had wanted since the end of the Apollo missions.

When George Bush spoke it had been 17 years since any human had ventured outside of earth's orbit. The last moon mission had been in 1972. Since then, America's space program had mostly centered on the space shuttle - its triumphs and its disasters and its hard won rebirth.

Now, in 1998, it looks like we are going to send people to Mars. We know how to do it. Only the political will is lacking. We also have to decide who else is going along for the ride. It is often assumed that any Mars mission will, of necessity, be an international project - that America just cannot afford to do it alone, as we did during the glory days of the Apollo project when NASA was spending 0.08% of U.S. GNP, roughly 30 billion in today's dollars, instead of 13.67 billion NASA will get in FY 1999.1

NASA had always dreamed great dreams. As NASA historian and critic Howard McCurdy put it: "From the beginning, NASA officials saw themselves as advocates of missions that were considerably beyond what the president and congress had actually authorized."2 Dan Goldin, the agency director, has recently asked his people to come up with a mission that could be done for about 25 billion, presumably over ten years.

In the final years of the Cold War, the idea of space cooperation with the Soviets became popular with those who were looking for a way out the "Logic of Conflict." The late Senator, Sparky Matsunaga (D), of Hawaii, proposed both a joint space station and in his 1986 book, the "The Mars Project,"3 a joint U.S./Soviet manned Mars mission. The senator wrote that "the United States bears a special responsibility not merely to follow, but to lead in the move towards greater and enduring cooperation in space,"4 - a fine idea, but one that leaves the space program vulnerable to the kind of corruption and bitter disappointment that now seems to be lurking in the shadows of the international space station.

When George Bush proposed a manned Mars mission, the idea was immediately sneered at by his political enemies in congress: "There's no such thing as a free launch," was one widely reported reaction, but what really killed his dream was the NASA study that put a 450 billion dollar price tag on the mission. In 1990, Bush proposed a 24% increase in NASA's budget.5 He did not get the money. The political stars were just not lined up right for Bush's dream of an Apollo-like push to put a man on Mars. …