Will humans ever go to Mars?

I get asked that question a lot. I end up giving two answers: my own wishful dreams, and the less inspiring view of what I think might actually happen.

I recently came across a thoughtful article that agrees with my complicated views on the subject very well. It’s titled “Mission to Mars: Will America Lose the Next Frontier?” After noting the merits of the MSL rover, the article points out the downside of the project: by going almost $1B over its initial cost estimate, MSL has forced the delay or cancellation of other Mars endeavors. (I believe that the article’s note about the cancellation of the Mars 2016 mission is a reference to the 2018 MAX-C mission, a step on the path to sample return, which was canceled. We do have a mission slated for 2016, announced after the article’s publication: the Mars Insight lander.) Similarly, the article notes the terrible impact that the James Webb Space Telescope has had on NASA’s astrophysics program. JWST is NASA’s poster child for mind-blowing cost overruns. Initially estimated at $500M, it’s grown by leaps and bounds and is now estimated at $8B. Both MSL and JWST are sure to deliver rich scientific gains in their respective missions. However, I think this article is correct and fair to note the other efforts that have fallen by the wayside to ensure that these projects are complete.

The main message of the article, however, is the bigger view on what this means in terms of larger, longer-term goals:

“But today, thanks to a combination of budgetary stress, regulatory overkill, and an unfortunate lack of political skill at the highest levels of NASA, the Mars exploration program is in deep trouble. It may be a very long time before the U.S. space agency launches another significant Mars mission.”

Put simply, NASA doesn’t have the budget to send humans to Mars. “Regulatory overkill” refers to a strict intolerance of any NASA failure, no matter how large or small, which necessitates over-engineering (and ballooning costs). Unless something dramatic changes in NASA leadership, political weight, or budgetary windfall, it’s unlikely that our space agency is going to get us there. But all is not lost; Elon Musk is on the job.

1 of 1 people learned something from this entry.

  1. jim said,

    August 26, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Right now, I’d say “Not for a while, and certainly unlikely by NASA.”

    One problem is NASA’s at the mercy of a fickle Congress and American populace. People want a space program, they just don’t want to pay for it. (You can substitute a variety of things for “space program”: strong defense, good roads, ridable Unicorns, etc.). Consider that even Apollo had tepid public (Reference 1, 2) and presidential (Ref: 3) support during most of its lifecycle. It benefitted from the fear that the Soviets would beat us there and do unimaginably Communist things as a result. Without a strong cheerleader or call to action, manned space exploration has to compete for budget with everything else. And because it’s frigging expensive, it has to be sold hard.

    Another problem is risk-tolerance. In reading the ISS project page, I agree it’s a logistical and organizational feat, but I’m hard-pressed to explain why it’s worth $150B. (International project management doesn’t cut it for me.) The station is understaffed for the size, which I understand is limited by the number of evacuation vehicle seats available. The sad part is it’s slated for decommissioning in 2016, not long after it was completed.

    So with that backdrop, I don’t see how a manned mission to Mars could happen in the current management: there’s not enough focus and we don’t have enough money to mitigate every conceivable risk for a trip that far/long. SpaceX seems to have the advantage of being a private corporation with the luxury of refusing some of the distractions, but with the benefit of having hired a lot of ex-NASA/JPL people with knowhow. Whether it can tolerate enough risk and fund a mars mission is to be determined.

  2. Kiri said,

    August 26, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I agree with you on all counts (though I wasn’t aware of the lackluster support for Apollo during its time — interesting). I was astonished when I first learned of the upcoming decommissioning of the ISS, just when it’s primed for full operation! (The recent news about possibly closing the Green Bank Telescope and VLBA is similarly bizarre, on a smaller financial scale.)

  3. Tom Dietterich said,

    August 28, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    My impression (from reading Packing for Mars) is that people are unlikely to survive the radiation exposure of a trip to Mars. What is known about this?

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