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Jay Currie

One Damn Thing After Another


A more Serious Set of Questions about Mars

Gregg Easterbrook launches into the very idea of a Mars mission with the dollars, cents and fuel ratios. The points he brings up are real and meeting them is more or less impossible with current NASA technology. Which raises the question of whether Bush will propose that the Mars shot begin with existing technology or seek new tech. Easterbrook tends to be right on his numbers:
Now, about this business of going to Mars. The Red Planet is plenty interesting, and men and women are sure to go there someday. For the moment, talk of a Mars mission is complete bunkum.

The Apollo spacecraft weighed 45 tons at departure from low-Earth orbit: it was gone for about ten days, carried three people and traveled about 800,000 miles total. A Mars mission would be gone for a minimum of a year (probably longer), carry at least six people (a geologist, a biologist, two physicians, and two career astronauts would be a skeleton crew), and travel 100 million miles or more total (the distance to Mars varies significantly depending on the launch year). So let's make a conservative guess and say an austere Mars-bound mission would weigh 25 times what an Apollo mission weighed, at departure from low-Earth orbit.

Now we're up to an 1,125-ton spacecraft and a $28 billion launch cost. (Probably a Mars mission would operate in segments, with several robot supply ships departing long before the manned craft; but for the cost calculation, the driving factor is total weight.) Twenty-eight billion is twice NASA's budget and, again, that is just the cost to launch the thing, not to build the ship, staff it and support it. When Bush's father asked NASA in 1989 about a Mars mission, the agency shot back a total program cost of $400 billion. That's $600 billion in today's money, and sounds about right as a Mars mission estimate. This is assuming no pointless stopover at the Moon; add a Moon base and the price zooms toward $1 trillion! We're getting into the range here of the national debt.

Update: Belmont Club does not specifically mention Easterbrook's analysis but comes to the same conclusions. But he also suggests that the new technology required to bring the cost of going to Mars within reason is likely to be found simply by deciding to look for it.

This may sound naive but Belmont Club has some good examples. And the history of technology, not science, technology, is as much about focussing what we already know on a problem as inventing something entirely new. Going back to and improving the X15 technology - replace Chuck Yaeger with a really good computer - or looking seriously at a space elevator or a concerted attempt to find fuel on the Moon are all possiblities. As a priority finding a good solution for launching mass out of Earth's gravity well seems sensible. (Rail gun?) Belmont Club points out that it took Prince Henry the Navigator 35 years to come up with the combination of technologies and skills which made open ocean voyaging a reality.