'Humans to Mars,' Zubrin Urges
by Ari Armstrong, January 9, 2004
Early reports indicate the Bush administration is preparing to announce a new mission to the Moon, followed by a manned mission to Mars.
Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, hopes Bush doesn't announce a "pseudo-space initiative," one that entails only long-term goals unlikely to be met.
Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars and several other works, spoke January 8 at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver to discuss his two latest books, Mars on Earth and Holy Land. The new Mars book describes the Mars Society's simulated Mars bases, while Holy Land is a "science fiction satire on the war on terrorism."
Zubrin wasn't as enthusiastic about another trip to the Moon, but he hoped for a "space initiative that sticks," one that advances the goal of moving humans into space.
The key for NASA's success is to have a goal. The Apollo era of the '60s was driven by the cold war, Zubrin said. The trip to the Moon was sold to the public, and to the politicians, as a way to beat the Russians. Since then, Zubrin argued, NASA has floundered, despite the real-dollar constancy of its budget.
Zubrin likened the situation to building a house. The prudent builder decides to build a house, hires an architect to develop a specific plan, then purchases specific parts to build the planned house. NASA has operated rather differently in recent decades, Zubrin suggested. The path NASA has followed is to purchase well-marketed house parts, then pile up those parts in the yard and hope that, someday, somehow, the agency can hire a builder to construct a house using the already-purchased supplies.
In short, NASA has had no plan, no central goal around which to organize, and the result has been ad hoc rationalizations for given expenditures. Zubrin wants NASA to focus on a manned Mars mission, but at least any coherent plan would provide direction and measurable goals.
"The American space program needs a goal, and the goal should be humans to Mars," Zubrin summarized. He reminisced about the '60s, when there was "no sense of stagnation... we were moving out." That era was marked by "continually more impressive achievements." Today, "NASA won't go anywhere until it has a goal," Zubrin said.
A mission to Mars might answer some important questions about the nature of life, Zubrin argued. It would also encourage the next generation of scientists, something Zubrin sees as having enormous potential benefits for the general advance of technology. Finally, Mars has the "resources to support civilization."
"Mars is not only desirable, but it is achievable," Zubrin argued, laying out the case that technologically we're better prepared today for Mars than America was for the Moon at the beginning of that project.
"We don't need exotic ships" to get to Mars, Zubrin said. Instead, heavy boosters from the '60s would suffice to launch first return vehicles and then manned habitats. "Each time you do this [launch another set of rockets], you create another habitat on Mars," Zubrin said, as each "hab" is left on the planet's surface.
Zubrin believes the public will exists to support a Mars mission. In 1997, he said, 100 million people followed the landing of Pathfinder. Over five times that number accessed the internet to track the rover currently active on the surface.
But NASA is driven by politics, not the grassroots, Zubrin said. That's why he got involved with the Mars Society. The organization promotes three broad goals: educating the public, convincing politicians to buy into the project, and launching its own projects, such as the simulation bases.
Zubrin described how he helped raise a million dollars to launch the first simulated base on a deserted island off Canada in 2000. Since then a second base went into operation in the Western U.S. and a third is planned for Iceland. Around 160 people have served on a crew on these bases, which impose conditions as much like Mars as possible. Zubrin said the bases provide information about everything from greenhouses to toilets to crew relations to entertainment needs. One lesson learned is that, on a manned mission, large, independent robots should be replaced by smaller machines that can be carried around by people.
Zubrin hopes work on the simulated bases can develop into more ambitious projects, such as an orbital training station, which would in turn give the Mars Society more credibility with the public. Thus, the dream of "humans to mars" can remain alive "even if the political class should totally fail."
Zubrin pointed out that if 100 million people each gave $100, a Mars mission could be funded as a private enterprise. The problem is convincing interested parties to gain confidence in a particular project.
Zubrin described his hopes for setting NASA on the path to Mars. Describing the problem of political interests, he said "we have to make this our project, not their project." In other words, he hopes a grassroots effort can help direct a Mars mission effectively.
Down the road, after people have achieved a colony on Mars, Zubrin speculated economic viability would come with inventiveness. "In a frontier, you are forced to innovate, and you are free to innovate," he said. Counter-productive forces such as pseudo-scientific activism against "genetically modified organisms" and labor pressures simply couldn't succeed in a frontier environment, Zubrin said. He drew a comparison to the relative freedom of the early colonies in America. People who want to live on Mars will figure out how to do so. On the Mars of the future, the "most likely exports are inventions -- intellectual property."
A member of the audience asked why a mission to Mars is important, given all the problems that plague Earth. Zubrin replied that fixing existing problems is important, but it's "necessary for us to prepare the way for the future. You have to do both."
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Zubrin clearly is torn between his distrust of politically controlled space exploration and his belief that a government-backed program is the quickest way into space.
He sees the X Prize, with its cash award for sub-orbital space flight, as "a positive but really small development." Many businesses supposedly pursuing the prize don't have a serious chance of success, and those that do, such as SpaceShip1, are limited in scope. "It doesn't get you to Mars," Zubrin said.
Finding things like corporate sponsorship is too difficult until a realistic program is already off the ground, Zubrin said. Thus, if a private program has any hope at all, it is through non-profit contributions from enthusiasts.
Imagine what would happen if Bush made a speech something like the following:
"The day has come to make NASA a truly public undertaking. From here on out, NASA will be funded solely by voluntary contributions as a non-profit entity, with the primary goal of establishing a human colony on Mars. I will write the first check payable to NASA out of my own accounts, right now, for one million dollars. I challenge every member of Congress to do the same, or to contribute as much as their means will allow. I also challenge those American businesspersons who have had success to contribute to this project. The bidding for promotional rights starts at $100 million. Finally, I ask you, the American citizen, to contribute as much as you can to this worthy goal. What we are talking about here is the future of the human race. A future as vast as the reaches of space. A future in which voluntary human relations, technological progress, and human achievement are the norm. This is the new frontier. It is the never-ending frontier. You and I have a chance to make history, the chance to greet the new dawn of human civilization in our lifetimes. Will you join me?"
If Bush made a speech like that, I'd proudly write a check to NASA that very day. I imagine NASA would raise enough money for the project within a few weeks. Hell, I'd even vote for Bush this November, if he made a speech like that.