The Folly of Mars

Ken Kalfus in n + 1:

ScreenHunter_927 Dec. 25 14.49A half-century after the conclusion of the Apollo mission, we have entered a new age of space fantasy—one with Mars as its ruling hallucination. Once again stirring goals have been set, determined timetables have been laid down, and artist’s renderings of futuristic spacecraft have been issued. The latest NASA Authorization Act projects Mars as the destination for its human spaceflight program. Last month’s successful test flight of the Orion space vehicle was called by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden “another extraordinary milestone toward a human journey to Mars.” The space agency’s officials regularly justify the development of new rockets, like the Space Launch System, as crucial to an eventual Mars mission.

But human beings won’t be going to Mars anytime soon, if ever. In June, a congressionally commissioned report by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, punctured any hope that with its current and anticipated level of funding NASA will get human beings anywhere within the vicinity of the red planet. To continue on a course for Mars without a sustained increase in the budget, the report said, “is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best.”

The new report warns against making dates with Mars we cannot keep. It endorses a human mission to the red planet, but only mildly and without setting a firm timetable. Its “pathways” approach comprises intermediate missions, such as a return to the moon or a visit to an asteroid. No intermediate mission would be embarked upon without a budgetary commitment to complete it; each step would lead to the next. Each could conclude the human exploration of space if future Congresses and presidential administrations decide the technical and budgetary challenges for a flight to Mars are too steep.

The technical and budgetary challenges are very steep. A reader contemplating them may reasonably wonder if it’s worth sending people to Mars at all.

More here.