"It's time for the human race to enter the solar system."
"It's time for the human race to enter the solar system."- George W. Bush
This week George W. Bush is expected to announce that he wants to go to the moon. Once there, he wants to set up a Lunar base, and from that permanent settlement launch manned missions to the planet Mars and back. Wow! Three years ago he’d never even been to Europe.
But hold on, and before we get all judgmental (Oh, I shall, just not in this paragraph), let’s take a lesson from the Supreme Court and give our president the irrational benefit of doubt. Perhaps - as with other really big decisions our president has made when his administration came under criticism, decisions simple-minded mortals such as I cannot comprehend, decisions so big that they will come to have historical implications that the press and future generations of Americans can completely ignore – perhaps as with those, God told him to do this. They do, after all, have conversations. We all know that. Because, in stark contrast to important, world altering conversations George has had with other intimates – like the bin Ladens, Ken Lay, Karl Rove, Ahmed Chalabi - George actually admitted to taking advice from God about the magnificent job he’s doing in the Middle East. Could it be that God, suitably impressed by the improvements George has made to His original design of the little blue planet upon which we stand, has decided it would be a good idea to turn George loose on His little red planet as well? I don’t know. Neither do I presume to know why God might have told George to bomb the Holy Land, but as far as space exploration goes, let’s presume that the god who talks to George is the God Bless America god, the peace on Earth god. Let’s assume He’s God The Creator. If one of the voices in George’s head is that of the Creator, I gotta figure that god already knows all about Mars. Why can’t George just ask Him next time they talk? Seems that in this context – the rare context of knowing exactly Who gives George his ideas - an actual manned round trip mission would be a big waste of time and money. George is the president. He should learn to be demanding, use his contacts rather than buy solutions to everything from Haliburton. Save some dough. Ask God what’s cooking on Mars and relieve the uncertainty, just like he did with Iraq. Because right now America is a little strapped for cash. That makes for unreliable spacecraft.
But of course as regards a manned mission to Mars, all of that "we can’t afford it" negativism will sublimate if George tells America that Mars is where he’ll find Osama bin Laden. If he goes on Fox News and says Osama’s on Mars - even if it’s a bunch of baloney invented by Karl Rove or Ahmed Chalabi - George will still get the funding for a manned mission to Mars or just about anywhere else he wants to pay Boeing to take him. Face it. Today’s self proclaimed American patriots will give their poster boy anything he demands. He just has to promise to protect them from evildoers wherever them folks may or may not be skulking, no questions asked. In just three years our president’s policies have depleted the United States Treasury of $650 billion dollars and killed over 7000 unarmed people in just one little crusade. Nobody’s questioning the expense. After all, if George said it was in the dual interests of national security and of maintaining our individual freedoms, that’s good enough for real Americans. It matters but little (if at all) that today our nation is less secure than ever, and the only individual who’s achieved any measure of freedom under George W. Bush’s presidency seems to be Osama bin Laden.
Now there are those who would still be quick to say that six-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-million-dollars and 7000 lives is a lot of other people’s stuff to squander without getting so much as a receipt to show for it. Certain nattering nabobs of negativism would be quick to say that neither the $650 billion nor those 7000 lives were George’s to take. But he took them all, and 60% of Americans don’t care a wit. In fact, most Americans like it. So, what the heck. We’re America. We can do anything. We’re preemptive!
So I say forget about local rocks like Mars and the moon. Let’s launch a real space mission. Let’s go to Heaven. George can afford it, and, unlike Osama bin Laden, George knows where it is, and unlike Mars, George knows how to get there.
Alrighty, then. As promised, the time has come to get judgmental. Because to not do so would be to join our herd of countrypersons in allowing this man, George W. Bush, this primitive who has had not a single legitimate success in his entire mortal life, this man who does not know how to pronounce nuclear, and has the scientific aptitude of a mollusk, to take on at our expense the most complex and challenging endeavor in the entire history of life on planet Earth… all four-thousand years of it! The time has come to put on the brakes, jam them on. The time has also come to get serious. We need to do a reality check, the kind scientists call a gap analysis.
Simply stated, while most of us would settle for being able to fly from Paris to Los Angeles in Bush’s world, we are suddenly presuming to fly people to another world altogether, sustain them there, and then bring them back alive. Subjectively speaking, that’s a damned wide gap. So what’s really up with this?
Let’s consider that question. In the interest of fairness, let’s also consider what might be the only justifiable and understandable rationale for Bush’s wanting to go to the moon and Mars. The first and only plausibility that comes to mind relates to his brief but influential management of a relatively small part of another nearby planet. The one beneath our feet. The blue one. The Earth. Given that our part of the Earth – the American part - is anticipating a trillion dollar annual financial deficit by the second year of Bush’s next term of office, and given that if we expect to keep America’s lights on, we will need to bankrupt not only Social Security, but Medicare as well, and further, given that we’ve already reduced overtime pay for civilian workers, medical benefits for our veterans, combat pay to our troops, and promised educational programs for our children, with no plan for recovery that will not create an exponential debt crater deeper than this planet’s core, and given that we are now alienated from every other civilization on planet Earth, I personally cannot think of a better time for George W. Bush to go to Mars. Nor can I think of a more suitable place for him to be. But Mars is, after all, the god of war, so George might say he wants to go there, he might even pose for some photos in a space suite, but when the time comes to actually go, he’ll send other people.
Well, if George himself isn’t going, I would then suggest we think this project through a little further before we write the check. I suggest we think it through from the point of view of mission success probability. Because no "Mission Accomplished" banner will be big enough to hide a failure on this ride. We need to face the reality, as demoralizing as it sounds, that our economic condition and the responsibilities with which we’ve now hobbled ourselves, leave America with about as much justification for funding a manned mission to Mars (and back) as we had for funding one to Baghdad. One must ponder, then, upon the real rationale behind this president’s sudden yen for cosmic exploration. When such a sudden and uncharacteristic curiosity is exhibited by a man who has an abject disrespect for the very planet that sustains him, and an unparalleled disregard for any of its life forms that aren’t him, it gets my attention. It should get yours too. Because this, combined with an overt disdain for the life sciences, a history of rejecting physical science in the interest of superstition, and a propensity for discounting geological evidence in the acceptance of myth, render this president’s sudden interest in cosmology suspect at the very least. This luddite who believes embryonic stem cells are little tiny people suddenly aspires to the scientific Mecca of interplanetary travel. What for? This guy – this incurious George - already presumes to know how the whole universe was created: he thinks it took a week four thousand years ago. He completely ignores what his home planet tells him about the origins of life. So I have no idea what Bush is up to with this Mars thing, but speaking for myself – a person who has spent his entire professional life in the aviation and space technologies - I’ve followed this guy about as far as I’m gonna go. Here’s why.
THE OBJECTIVE(S): In order to fully appreciate the rigor of manned, reciprocal, interplanetary travel we’ll need to touch on the physics and economics involved. So, as the song says, let’s get physical. Let’s get astrophysical. Let’s talk space talk.
Even our comic book leader probably has some childlike idea of the technology involved with getting humans to another planet, so I will not dwell on details of that part of the mission. But I doubt that he has the dimmest clue of what humans might do while there, or how they’ll get back home. The former is, after all, the reason they should have for going in the first place. But is it the reason George would be sending them? The American public is funding the mission. Will we be told the truth about why we’re embarking? A human mission to Mars poses daunting challenges. But engineers and scientists have proposed many workable scenarios to the technical challenges. "The biggest obstacle," says Scientific American magazine, "is the enormous cost." More on that later.
If George makes his Kennedyesque announcement this week as expected, will the obedient press corps whom he acknowledges, ask him the valid questions? Will George be prepared to answer the boring stuff like, How long will EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activities) last? After all, in hostile environments, humans are higher maintenance than machines. How will they spend that EV time? What are they going to achieve that machines alone cannot? What tools, lab equipment, and robotics will be available to them? How will the tools and science be uniquely augmented by the presence of humans? How far will these surface sojourns take the astronauts? And so on.
While on the nearby and little Lunar surface Apollo EVAs were scripted to the last detail, they were monitored in near-real-time, and they were short. Mars is huge, hostile, and very far away. So far American Mars missions – all unmanned - have catastrophically failed six out of fifteen times. Russian missions suffer a far more dismal success rate. No Mars missions – ours or anyone’s - landed and came back. There’s a pretty good chance then that on an immensely more complex manned round-trip, the astronauts will encounter unforeseen circumstances. They will have questions that need answers and need them fast. Mars at a given time can be anywhere from 4 to 20 light-minutes distant from Earth. That means if the astronauts need to ask a question of mission control it will take between four and twenty minutes for the radio signal to reach the Earth, and another four to twenty minutes for the answer to travel back to Mars. Can Astronauts in distress wait that long for their questions to be answered? Suppose Huston answers a question with another question (i.e. Apollo 13). Discourse is not an option. Mission control will have no situational awareness. Mars is not the moon. Mars is a rocky planet, dense, distant, and diverse in its topology. How much would we know about our own planet Earth if we were limited to a few short jaunts on a single part of a single continent, returning to our habitat at least every night? We’re ostensibly looking for signs of microscopic life forms on a foreign world whose land surface area is greater than all of the continents of the Earth combined. Yet, after eleven years of searching we can’t find 26, 000 liters of anthrax, 38, 000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons of nerve gas, thousands of tons of VX and Sarin gas, an entire uranium plant!, and 16 scud missiles in a foreign country the size of Texas right here on Earth.
Since Mars, though smaller and less massive than Earth, is a full-on planet. Its gravity is more substantial than that of the moon. That means its escape velocity – the speed that must be achieved by a payload-carrying vehicle on its surface, and endeavoring to escape the planet’s gravity and come home is higher: about 25,000 miles per hour. It takes a pretty good sized rocket to either go that fast or get high enough above the surface to mitigate that speed when it’s carrying a payload and the planet is trying to pull it back down. Wax wings ain’t gonna cut it. Currently postulated ascent vehicles can weigh up to 30 metric tons (in Earth’s gravity). Will the crew take such a rocket with them? Will the astronauts build another Cape Kennedy on one of their EVAs? Or do we plan to leave the Astronauts on Mars? Plan? What plan?
I’m being deliberately simplistic. Imaginative answers to all of these questions have of course been postulated. But does the American public know them? Or more to the point, does Bush?
Let’s get closer to the administration’s real reason for talking about a manned mission to Mars. It’s election year. America and millions of impressionable Americans need a morale booster. While we won’t take responsibility for our tax dollars incinerating children in Iraq, we’ll be quick to assume credit for funding a Mars mission – if it works. Though the hype and buildup for a manned Mars mission will be orchestrated to peak at election time, whatever ultimately happens on or to this mission and its crew, will happen long after Bush is out of office. We’re basking this week in the success of NASA’s Mars Spirit Rover. But in short, Mr. President, what you’re asking here is much more than was demanded by Rover. In short Mr. President, before you – you of all presidents - presume to send human beings to another world affordably and bring them back alive (feats this planning-averse leadership has been unable to accomplish even on Earth), perhaps you should answer two far more simple questions. They are these. How? Why?
Methinks that an honest answer to those simple questions would reveal that George’s sudden other worldly aspirations proceed less from the achievements of a thing named Rover than they do from the influence of a thing named Rove.
I love the art and science of space travel. Not in my wildest nightmares did I imagine I’d ever be writing such an opinion as is this. But here’s the part that depresses me most – the pragmatic part. The "what could have been" part. So – just like the smart talking TV news guy - I’ll spice it up with space talk so it’s less boring, less depressing.
Immediately prior to Bush’s assumption of power, we the American people had achieved an international status and economic thrust powerful enough to lift and propel this nation to a height and velocity adequate to overcome the gravity of a future that will now be characterized by critically under funded (fueled) social programs mandatory to the life-support of our oldest and our youngest citizens. We’re in social retrograde. Having failed to achieve escape velocity, our nation is now in a terminal rate plummet from the apex of what was its most prosperous period ever to the nadir of what is already the deepest financial impact crater in its history. We’ve ablated our protective surplus of $260 billion. With that heat shield gone, the fires of reentry have already melted through $450 billion of our life support capsule. If we don’t burn up in our freefall through this economic atmosphere, with no plan for a controlled recovery, the next four years will see America crash.
To responsibly and adequately fund a manned interplanetary mission, requires nothing less than a king’s ransom. The engineering cannot be less than robust in each parameter. Every system must be deeply redundant and derated to what would be considered absurd levels for any other endeavor. Money was lavished on Project Apollo. Lavished! We’ve seen the horrific results of modest funding in even comparatively simple Soviet manned programs. We’ve seen the embarrassing failure of NASA’s naïve "Faster, Better, Cheaper" program as well. We engineers have a saying, "Faster, better, cheaper. Pick two." Even a "Mars Direct" mission – the simplest and "cheapest" of the options so far considered - is at least a decade out. That’s 2014 at the earliest. In the intervening decade we’ll be spiraling into an unprecedented national indebtedness. In fact, on August 27th – the very day Mars passed closer to Earth than it had been in the last 50,000 years - on that very day the Congressional Budget Office announced that George W. Bush’s fiscal policies will result in a $4.4 Trillion deficit by the year 2014. Corners will be cut. Money will not be lavished in such an economic milieu. The timing couldn’t be worse. A failure would cost lives and would set back manned space programs a virtual eternity. So why now, Mr. Bush? Why now indeed.
As the planet Mars now recedes from us at about the same time-rate-of-change that we as an earthbound nation become financially unable to sustain ourselves on our home planet, the effective cost of such a mission also increases exponentially. By that I mean the social and real scientific cost of showboating with human life. It has already become not just irrational but irresponsible and financially implausible to send Americans to the planets and back. Is this the most sensible use of already scarce scientific research money? Of course not. Sending humans to Mars now, while the nation concurrently descends deeper into debt than at any time in its history is simply not a sustainable ambition. Face it, America, that ship has sailed. A mere three years ago we as a nation were coming off the most prosperous and enlightened period in our history. We could have properly researched and responsibly funded a safe Mars mission. Tax cuts, Iraq, Homeland Security - the largest growth of government in the history of the Earth - and a yearly deficit spiraling toward the trillions have made all that a pipe dream.
At the start of last year, as Mars began its closest approach to Earth in recorded history, there was much talk coming from the White House about science. But the talk was about the science of Earth’s exploitation, not Mars’s exploration. We cannot be gods, so we’ve chosen to be monsters.
To commit to such an endeavor as a human mission to Mars as recently as 2002 would have positioned America and Americans a nation and a people apart. We’re a people and a nation apart now, but for all the wrong reasons. We’d have been a people to emulate, not fear. Which is exactly what our leaders are afraid of. Our greed-driven, neurotic, and ignorant leadership has determined that America should never be challenged by others, in any regard. So we decided instead on an expedition to Iraq. We decided instead to squander our incalculable blood and treasure in the service of subhuman ignorance, fear, and violence. Now it’s payback time. We’ve abdicated our right to dream of glory. Ignorance, ignorance and fear are to be this generation’s legacy. Their combined and bitter fruits will be our children’s future. Human travel to other worlds is but the first unfulfilled promise we’ve made to our kids and the kids of the world. Without a mid course correction, there will be many, many more.
About The Author
Dom Stasi is Chief Technology Officer for a national satellite network based in Los Angeles. He was the original chief engineer who helped design and build both HBO and MTV’s satellite infrastructures, remaining as an executive with both for much of his career. Mr. Stasi also flew aerial reconnaissance during the Cold War and was a member of the Project Apollo technical team at Grumman Aerospace. An active member of The Planetary Society, and the Center For Inquiry, he is a frequently published science and technology writer. Opinions expressed in this piece are solely his own.