Speaking of the Future with Robert Zubrin
Two items in the news set the stage for today’s piece.
- The Gehman Report on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster has been released, and it is as critical of NASA as many predicted it would be. While the report calls for an overhaul of the culture that drives the space agency, there are those who suggest that fixing NASA won’t be enough. Some critics are calling for the end of the space shuttle program or for the abolishment of NASA altogether.
- Today, Mars and Earth are at their closest point in nearly 60,000 years. What a treat it’s been, on recent evenings, to stand in my back yard and gaze at this amazing golden light shining in the southern sky. There’s another world, right there, almost close enough to touch. It’s a world many of us have thought about, read about, dreamed about all our lives.
The crux of these two news stories is that it may be time to put away childish things where Mars is concerned. I’ve always believed that I would live to see the day that human beings set foot on Mars. And I’ve always assumed that, when that day comes, it will be NASA that makes it happen. Both that belief and that assumption are now seriously in doubt.
After all, if we were ever going to go to Mars, wouldn’t we be doing it right now? Wouldn’t this have been the perfect time, with Mars so close?
And how could NASA an agency apparently still mired in the same cultural bog that gave us the Challenger disaster possibly get us there?
Enter Robert Zubrin.
While many of us have been reading and dreaming about Mars, Zubrin has been making concrete plans. He’s a former Staff Engineer with Lockheed Martin, and the founder and President of both Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society. Zubrin is the author of several books on the future of space exploration and settlement, most notably The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.
For years, Zubrin has been making the case that a series of missions to Mars could be deployed quickly and safely, and at a much lower cost than other experts have suggested. These missions would serve as the first steps in the human settlement of the red planet and of the rest of the solar system.
Some will argue that such ideas are pipe dreams, that any attempt by NASA to take on a major exploration initiative would inevitably dead-end just as Apollo did, to the detriment of other, more realistic space inititiatives. That may be true. On the other hand, if abolishing the space shuttle and even NASA itself are going to be on the table, then some other alternatives need to be there as well. And maybe just maybe it’s time to think big again, as we did when the space program was born.
In the wake of the Gehman report, with Mars shining bright in the southern sky, it’s time Robert Zubrin had a fair hearing.
You've been in the news this week saying, "Next year is a crisis that may well determine whether humans to Mars occurs in our lifetime. This is a unique opportunity, but if we let it slip by, we're going to blow it." Can you please explain what that means? How are we going to blow it?
We have a conjuncture of events that are facing us right now. First of all, NASA is about to be thrown into chaos over the shuttle report, which is going to be deservedly very harsh. It's going to be impossible to suggest that we should keep launching the shuttle orbiters for the next 25 years or so. Also, there's going to be a severe rethinking of NASA's overall priorities. Human space flight is risky. Is it worth taking those risks just to fly ant farms into Earth orbit? Or, if we're going to take those kinds of risks, should we be attempting goals that are worthy of those risks?
You mentioned keeping the shuttle orbiter going for the next 25 years. What's the plan of record for that?
Well, that's the party line prior to the Columbia, actually. And it's ridiculous. You can't maintain these things, they're Carter-Administration-era constructs. They take a hell of a beating every time we fly. Actually, it's somewhat incredible that they have had the good luck they have had up to this point. NASA has already begun to move on this and they've started a program called the orbital space plane.
You see, the shuttle is irrational as a launch vehicle regardless of whether an accident occurs. It's a huge launch vehicle; it has 7 1/2 million tons of thrust the same amount of thrust the Saturn V, a moon rocket, had at take-off. A Saturn V could lift 140 tons of payload to Earth orbit. The shuttle delivers 20 tons of payload to Earth orbit. It actually delivers 120 tons, but most of that is the inert mass of the shuttle itself. So flying cargo to Earth orbit is like trying to truck cargo in a Winnebago. You've got a powerful engine, but most of it is hauling your house around. So we’re using the shuttle to transport crew to the space station, basically to perform a taxicab function . It can do it, but it's like using an aircraft carrier to pull water skiers. The vehicle is way oversized for the task.
That's why NASA has come up with a plan to create a thing they called the Orbital Space Plane, which would be, by comparison, a relatively modest capsule or a mini-shuttle.
Is that the ramjet/scramjet?
No. It's either a capsule or a miniature shuttle put on top of an expendable launch vehicle, an Atlas or a Delta, which sends it to orbit. It can have a crew of six people in it. It will have about one-tenth the take-off thrust and one-tenth the cost of the shuttle. That's rational. Fine. Okay.
However, the question then becomes: what do we do with the shuttle launch infrastructure? The shuttle launch infrastructure is more than the orbiter, it's also the external tanks, the solids, the space shuttle main engine, the pads, and all the people and technology that support that. Now if you simply discard that, you're discarding a gigantic asset.
Really, what you want to do with the shuttle launch infrastructure is lose the orbiter and replace it with an upper stage, a rocket stage. And then, all of a sudden, without the burden of this huge mass, this giant Winnebago, it becomes a proper launch vehicle. It provides Saturn V class launch capabilities, which means it could serve as the primary instrument to send humans to the Moon or to Mars. With this approach, we can achieve direct throw, straight from the launch vehicle, just like we had with Apollo. No monkeying around with trying to build gigantic science fiction interplanetary space ships. Just throw the payload to the planet using the booster. Bang! You're there.
NASA can do that, or not do it. They have a choice. They can simply rationalize the shuttle's taxicab function to orbit, to move people back and forth to the space station on a little capsule on top of an Atlas, and lose the shuttle pads, and capabilities. Or they can turn the shuttle into a heavy-lift vehicle. The only way they can rationalize turning the shuttle into a heavy lift vehicle is if they decide we’re going to go to the Moon or Mars, or both. With people.
Because otherwise we don't need that big lift capability.
Right. NASA has had an academic position for the past 30 years that some day, we'll go back to the Moon. Someday we'll go to Mars. Of course, someday we're going to do it. But now, they've got a choice: they either have to do it now or throw away a $10 billion asset. So it's like a guy who's been hanging around a girl for five years, and she finally turns and says, "Jack, are you going to propose or not?"
Let me give you a choice: shuttle launch infrastructure or Saturn V for going to Mars which one would you pick?
I'd take the Saturn V.
We really lost something, there, didn't we?
Yes, we did.
Now, in risking throwing away the shuttle launch infrastructure, is NASA poised to repeat the mistake they made with the Saturn V after Apollo?
Yes, that's exactly what they did with the Saturn V after Apollo. And it was the most catastrophic mistake that has ever been made in the history of the space program. We destroyed tens of billions of dollars worth of space capability. We set ourselves back a generation. It was like Columbus coming back from the New World and Ferdinand and Isabella saying, "Oh, so what? Burn of the fleet." That's what happened after Apollo, and that's the juncture they're at right and now. So they can choose. Which way are they going to go?
Some of the contractors have a vested interest in how this position works out. There's jobs at stake. There's money at stake, here. Some of the contractors don't see the possibility of getting a moon/Mars program launched. And so what they're trying to do instead is to make the Orbital Space Plane as expensive as possible. It's basically you're the cabdriver, there's one fare at the airport, and you want to show him all the sites in town. They're coming up with designs for this capsule I cannot believe this, but it's true with proposed program cost-to-development of $17 billion. That's almost twice what it cost to develop the shuttle, the whole shuttle, its propulsion systems and its external tanks as well as the orbiter. It's three times what we were going to pay to build the Superconducting Supercollider. It's crazy. And yet all it gives you is a capsule, to go back-and-forth to the station. This program should be a $1 billion program, not a $17 billion program. Maybe $1.5 billion. But they're trying to run it up on the meter.
Now if they do that, there will be no money to convert the shuttle, there will be no money to do anything in space, except to build this stupid taxicab. And then people have to start asking the question, "If we're just going back and forth to the space station, why are we going to space all?" Because the only real justification for the space station is to prepare the way for human interplanetary flight. You can't justify that if, at the same time, you're destroying your main asset that would support this requirement.
On the other hand, for many of the contractors, the destruction of the shuttle infrastructure means they're out of business.
They are in crisis, too, and this gives the people who want to launch a planetary initiative a certain constituency right now. All this is happening at a time when five spacecraft are on their way Mars:
There's the Mars Express, the interplanetary probe from the European Union; there’s the Beagle 2, the first British interplanetary probe; there are two NASA Mars landers equipped with capable rovers, robotic rovers, which will move kilometers across the Martian surface; and finally there’s the Japanese Nozomi orbiter, which has been limping along towards Mars for several years now, but looks like it's finally going to get there in the spring. And then there's two American orbiters in orbit around Mars right now as well. So next spring, there will be seven spacecraft operating on Mars, representing Europe, the United States, Britain, and Japan. There's going to be worldwide excitement about Mars. If the robotic space program is ever going to have the effect of kickstarting a human exploration program, it has to happen next spring. There'll never be another show this big. It's going to be a hard act to follow. I mean, there will be other probes, which can do this and do that, but in terms of public impact, this spring is the climax of the robotic program.
So you've got NASA itself in a crisis, you've got the robots doing everything they can to move things forward, and it's all happening in the high political season in United States. The New Hampshire primary is going on virtually simultaneously with the Rover landings. The timing of these missions and the political climate make this an excellent opportunity to generate interest in a humans-to-Mars program among the American public.
Let me ask about something else that I think is going to attract a lot of attention towards the end of this year. I'd like to know what your views on it are. That is the X Prize. Will it generate interest not only in getting people into orbit, but in doing it in something other than a make-it-as-expensive-as-we-can kind of approach?
A little. But the X Prize, if someone does win it, is a sub-orbital junket on a rocket. It's not the same as planetary exploration. It's not exploration at all.
And it doesn't help to get us there?
Well, you know, it's giving some publicity to small launch vehicle companies that need some publicity and so, by running it as a race, you can generate public attention and perhaps some investment, but the scale of these operations are very small compared to what is needed to open the solar system for humanity. And that's what we're really doing now. So hats off to the X Prize. And hats off to anyone who wins it . But it's a peripheral element of the situation from where I stand.
The X Prize approach of doing it more-or-less on the cheap reminded me a lot of The Case for Mars.
That's true. But you know, you don't have to do things on the cheap if you're the United States. You just have to do them. The incredible waste that we've had in our space program is not a function of particular operations being expensive. It's a function of the fact that the space program as whole has no plan. They're literally spending as much money per year right now as we spent on average during the Apollo period, and accomplishing nothing. Nothing.
The average NASA budget, taken from 1961 when Kennedy made his speech, to 1973 when we had the close-down of the Apollo and Skylab missions was $17 billion per year in today's money, inflation-adjusted. NASA's budget this year is $16 billion. We're within six or seven percent of Apollo-level funding, and we're not accomplishing anything. We spent $150 billion on NASA in the 1990's, and we're not one step closer to the Moon or Mars today than we were in 1990. That is because they have no plan. So they launch a series of simultaneous programs. They start them; they stop them. None of them ever produces anything, with the exception of the robotic probes. The robotic probes are good. A few elements have advanced since 1990. We've got a bit more scientific knowledge about Mars from the Mars Global surveyor probe. Of the $150 billion, that was $150 million. Just one-tenth of 1 percent of the money was usefully spent.
I'll just give you one example. In the 1960's we had Apollo. We knew where we going. We're going to the Moon, thanks to Kennedy, and we had a deadline.
Within this decade.
Within this decade. Sitting there in 1961 they say, if we're going to do this by 1969, we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to do it in a year and then put out contracts, and then build the elements and have them test-flying around 67, and then go on to the Moon from there. And that's exactly what they did. Take the Saturn V: from1961 to 1962, they figure out how they're going to do the Moon mission. In 1962, they said okay, these are the elements we need: the command module, the lunar lander, the service module. We need a vehicle that can throw all that to a trans-lunar trajectory, the Saturn V, it's got to have this capability. They put out a request for proposals to select contractors. The deadline is to fly by 1969. They have the first test flight in 1966. And they send people to the Moon in 1969.
Now contrast that to NASA's more recent approach. In 1996, NASA administrator Dan Goldin says he'd like to work on "new launch vehicle technology." No requirements, no deadlines, no nothing. So they spend a billion dollars and five years on the program they call X-33, which they cancel in 2001 without having flown anything, and without having achieved anything. And if you look at it, since the 1980's, NASA has had a series of launch vehicle programs: it was the Shuttle C, we had the Advanced Launch System, we had the New Launch System, we had the SpaceLifter Program, we had the X-33, we had the Space Launch Initiative I know I'm leaving a couple of them out. But they just start them up and shut them down; start them up and shut them down. They just spend money without making any progress.
Administrator O'Keefe has been going around saying NASA should not have a goal. It should not be destination-driven. That's what he says.
What would NASA be driven by, then?
He says instead we're developing the technologies to allow us to go anywhere, anytime. So, organically, the technologies are being developed until they're mature. And then we will have them to go everywhere, instead of just a particular place, like Mars.
This could not be further from the truth. They're not developing the technologies that will allow them to go anywhere at all, let alone "anywhere, anytime." Without a goal, they don't develop a coherent set of hardware that can do anything. We didn't get to the Moon by a bunch of guys running into each other in the cafeteria at the Johnson Space Center in the spring of 1968 And saying, , "You know, if we put your booster together with my lunar landing module and his command module, we could call these pieces together and gee, we could go to the Moon. Isn't it lucky all the pieces fit?"
It went to the other way. You define the goal; you figure how do the goal; you figure out what hardware elements we need to do the goal; you build those hardware elements; and you go do it. The way they're attempting to develop space technology right now is like this: imagine a couple is trying to build a house. The way they're doing it is, they're accumulating things that might be useful to build the house. So they go to a garage sale, where somebody's got a banister and they think, hey, that's a good-looking banister. Hey, there's some aluminum siding, next year maybe we'll get a spiral staircase, how about a Doric column or two. They accumulate all this junk in their backyard and they hope that eventually they’ll have all the right pieces to build a house.
So that's the problem, here. NASA's spending $16 billion a year, and taking no material steps forward toward human space exploration, because they have no commitment in place to do human space exploration. They have no plan. Then have no goal. They're not destination-driven. They need to be a destination-driven. That's what's needed to create a productive space program.
You put together what reads to me like a really coherent plan to get us to Mars a number of years ago in your book, The Case for Mars. To what extent is the plan that you outlined there what you would propose now in this (potentially) post-shuttle era? Would you recommend the same approach?
Pretty much. If you look at the Mars Direct Plan, we used the shuttle as our heavy-lift launch vehicle. It moves the orbiter replaced with an upper stage. It was the right approach in 1990, and it's the right approach today.
Do you have any hope that there's going to be a change of heart at NASA around adopting a kind of mission-oriented, destination-driven approach to these things?
I'm going to try to make it happen.
The Mars Society is going to try to make it happen. We're going to mobilize our chapters to go and visit with Congressmen all across the country. The goal is to visit with at least 300 Congressmen in their offices over the next six months and tell them that America needs a space program that’s going somewhere. That's what we need if we're going to have a viable space program. We need to have a viable space program if we're going to continue to be a nation of pioneers.
Here's the question that maybe either doesn't get asked, or doesn't get answered properly. Why think about going to Mars? It's been 30 years since we've been to the Moon, we've done a fair job of exploring the planets with the unmanned satellites, we have Hubble doing a pretty good job for us. Have things just kind of evolved to where the human exploration of the planets of outer space is over?
Try exploring the Earth with orbiters. Yes, you can do some imaging from orbit, you can learn something about the Earth from orbit, but try to exploring the Earth from orbit. Try exploring Paris from orbit. The orbiters are worthwhile. No doubt about it. In pointing out the limits of robotic exploration, I am not opposing robotic exploration. I am simply making clear that it's a limited tool. It's like aerial reconnaissance. You can't win wars with aerial reconnaissance. It comes in handy. It's good to do. You should do it. But it's not the decisive element. The decisive element in exploration is the human being on the ground. If we’re ever going to find out if there's ever been life on Mars, if we're going to find fossils on Mars, we're going to have to drill into its crust to extract water from the subsurface, and examine it for life ... you have to send human explorers there.
These rovers that we're sending to Mars this year, in their life they will travel a kilometer. You know, the Mars Society has a simulated Mars exploration environment on Devon Island. We constrain people to operate as if they were on Mars. The can’t go outside without wearing space suits, for example. Our explorers on Devon have found stromatolites, which are fossils left by colonies of bacteria. I guarantee you that you could have parachuted a hundred robots to Devon Island and you never would've found those stromatolites. You could parachute a thousand of these rovers into the Rocky Mountains, and you'd never find a dinosaur fossil.
What about taking the argument one step further? So what if we drill into the crust and find those things? Why is it worth spending this kind of money to have people standing there so they can discover ancient bacteria on Mars?
Well, we get an answer to the question of life in the universe, whether it's a general phenomenon or not. We find out if it's life like on the Earth or not. Getting an answer to that question is worth the money. But beyond that, there's something worth much more: if we go to Mars, we're going to open up a new world for humanity. We're going to open up a world that has a surface area equal to all the continents of the Earth put together and that has on it all the resources needed to support not only life, but civilization. If we go to Mars in our time, then 200 years from now there will be a new branch or perhaps many new branches of human civilization on Mars, with their own dialects, literatures, cities and universities, used bookstores. They will have made contributions to social thought, to technology and invention, and they'll have epic stories to inspire those who go out further. When they look back at our time, what will they think that we're doing today that is equal in importance to what we did to make their existence possible?
We look back today to 1492: who was queen of Spain?
All right, who was queen of Spain in 1540?
And I bet you couldn't find one person and a thousand who could tell you that one. Or 1640. Or 1740. Or 1840. Isabella is only a significant person because she sponsored Columbus.
So this is a message you need to get to President Bush, right?
What about this. I've heard it argued that Greens, people who support the environment, really should be in favor of space exploration. The argument goes like this: take the Apollo missions for example. For a short time, we brought life to what had always been a lifeless body. If we continue with the human settlement of space, we can bring life to many places where it's never been before. But at the same time, you hear about this movement to keep the Moon and now Mars pristine and make a preserve out of them.
Well, that point of view is anti-life. It is the nature of life to take barren environments and transform them to those that are friendly to the development and propagation of life. That's the whole history of life on Earth. That's why life on Earth has been a success. And we regard this process as marvelous. When Hawaii came out of the Pacific Ocean, this huge piece of bare basalt, would anyone have wanted it to stay that way? No, we want the birds to fly over and drop seeds so the islands become lush, then the animals arrive, then the Polynesians show up, and then Europeans come and build hotels. This is what life does. This is what life should do. Who would want the Earth today, with all its natural wonders, to become a place like Mars? No one sane. So, clearly, it is a good thing to take Mars in the state that it is in and transform it into becoming something as wonderful as the Earth.
So, if you get your way if the Mars Society is successful, and a program is adopted let me give you a list of things, and then you tell me when you think they will happen. Starting with a manned mission to Mars.
If we get our way, we can be on Mars in 10 years. We’re closer today, from a technological point of view, to having humans on Mars than we were to having people on the Moon in 1961 when that goal was adopted.
How about a permanent settlement on Mars?
How about permanent settlement elsewhere in the solar system? And where you think that would be?
Well, you could establish a settlement on the Moon, but it wouldn't be anywhere near as self-sufficient as one on Mars.
Because of the lack of resources there?
Yes. And then similarly in the near asteroids, and eventually the main-belt asteroids. Mars is not the final destination, but it is the direction. It's where we establish our first new branch of humanity in space as a space-faring species. And if we do it, that in itself will develop our capabilities. The first people that go to Mars are going to go in chemically propelled spacecraft. They're going to make the passage in cramped and uncomfortable quarters. The grandchildren of the first Martian immigrants will find it difficult to credit the story that their grandparents tell about how long it took. Because they'll be traveling in fusion-powered spacecraft which can do it in three weeks in great comfort.
Once there is a branch of human civilization on Mars, we have the incentive to develop more of the technologies that will allow us to make the transit routine. Columbus fared the Atlantic in ships that even a generation later no one would have attempted to the Atlantic in. Because until there was transatlantic transportation, there was no need to develop transatlantic-capable ships. But after Columbus came a trans-oceanic civilization and your three-masted sailing ships, your clipper ships, your steamers, your ocean liners, your Boeing 747’s all followed in turn. But the same technology that makes the transfer to Mars routine, will also make it possible for more daring people to take much greater steps. If you can get to Mars in three weeks, you can get to the Moons of Saturn in a few months. Perhaps even attempt interstellar voyages within a few decades.
A few decades from now?
No, a few decades of transit.
Actually, that was the next item on my list. Using the same time line, when we would we venture to the stars?
If we go on this trajectory, if we take the high road, and establish a new branch of human society on Mars, such that 50 years from now there are growing settlements on Mars and we're seeing the beginnings of settlement of the broader solar system with mining colonies in the outer asteroids and so forth I think a few decades later, we will see the first exploratory missions beyond the solar system.Posted by Phil at August 27, 2003 08:55 AM | TrackBack