Keith's note: There has been a flurry of comments via Twitter and press releases over the past 24 hours about going to Mars - and what things we can do now to help us to get there. It all started with NASA Administrator Bolden telling an advisory group yesterday that "Inspiration Mars is not Inspirational". He was referring the the latest incarnation of the ever-changing mission idea first proposed by Dennis Tito. This is part of a larger discussion regarding the SLS (Space Launch System), destinations in space, the value of commercial space - all of which was turbocharged by NASA's stealthy direction to its staff to cut off all ties with Russia except those involving the International Space Station.
Bolden, the White House, and some Democrats want to do the ARM (Asteroid Retrieval Mission) as a first test of the Orion/SLS system. Republicans and members of Congress from states where SLS/Orion hardware is made want a more robust Mars flyby mission using additional SLS hardware. All of this is fueled behind the scenes by partisan politics and the puppetry by former NASA employees scorned by the cancellation of the Constellation program.
And no one in this food fight can point to a clear, cohesive space policy proposal - one with budgets, milestones, and overall goals. Indeed everyone's notional policy is deeply flawed and wholly out of synch with the realities of using the same old approaches to conduct a program of human exploration mandated by the government. But when has that stopped anyone from having a good argument about what the current Administration's policy is - or is not? Indeed that is what this is all about. No one wants to really explore space any more. They just want to argue about it.
The argument currently finds itself focused on asteroids Vs Mars. So lets start there.
ARM is not without its fiscal problems and fundamental flaws. If the whole idea of ARM is to give Orion/SLS system a test in deep space then they should actually send a crew *to* an asteroid IN DEEP SPACE. Grabbing an asteroid and then bringing it back to a location close to Earth via robot such that Orion can visit it totally undermines the purpose of a deep space test. Its like lowering a basketball hoop to make it easier for you to sink the ball. Your test now becomes a stunt. It would be vastly simpler and less expensive to send a robotic mission to characterize the target asteroid - if asteroid characterization was the main goal.
If a true test of Orion/SLS systems in a risky environment - for a first flight - was the goal, then NASA should do just that. But to suggest that a Mars Flyby is a good way to do this test is to run in the exact opposite direction - for a first mission. Operating much closer to Earth ARM has the virtue of providing a contingency return if any critical systems fail on their first flight. Mars Flyby commits to everything with no way to abort. The crew is along for a 500+ day ride no matter what.
So ARM is too wimpy and Mars Flyby is too risky. How do we test Orion/SLS? And oh yes, everyone is waving their arms as to whether either mission "helps us get to Mars". Well, if you have already decided that Orion/SLS is the only (preferred) way you want to send humans to Mars then ANY flight has to provide some value. Of course some missions provide more bang for the buck than others. So people saying that it doesn't help us get to Mars are simply playing politics with their preferred mission.
The issue as I see it is how you use this absurdly expensive system in a strategic, systematic way that reduces real risk without taking unreasonable risks and demonstrates systems and technologies specifically needed to land people on Mars. You need a firm goal, and a long term plan for what you do once you get to Mars and build backward from what it takes to meet those goals.
Here's the problem: NASA has no firm plan, goals, destinations, and it doesn't even have the slightest hint of any evidence that a budget significant enough to make Mars exploration possible is in the cards. "Some time in the 2030s" is not a policy to send humans to Mars. Its a punchline for policy wonks to use.
Indeed there is not enough money NOW in order to get started. Moreover, we have one singular government solution (Orion/SLS) irreparably mandated by a collision of meandering policies from successive White Houses with overt pork preservation tactics by Congress. No discussion of alternate approaches is possible. And when one private sector alternate approach appeared (the original Inspiration Mars) it was immediately abducted by big aerospace companies and morphed so as to now justify the Orion/SLS - the very thing it originally sought to eclipse.
Have I missed anything?
- Bolden: Inspiration Mars is Not Inspirational, earlier post
- Is Inspiration Mars a "NASA Mission"? It Depends Who You Ask, earlier post