Ambitious Dreams, Pragmatic Means for Reaching Mars

Imagine being a science fiction writer circa 1940 or 1950, and selling to John W Campbell Jr your fictional visions of a future that all right thinking people scoffed at. Then, starting with Kennedy, the Space Race culminates in the Moonshot. The Eagle has landed, and the footprints of Man mark the impossible airless sands of Luna. And then … decades of NASA Bureaucracy, preventable rocket disasters, cost overruns, falling skylabs, astronaut deaths, a dearth of public interest, and no urgent military interest drains the blood the space program, until President Obama calls an end to the major NASA programs.

And fantasy outsells your science fiction project. Young fans think X-Wing fighters make banked turns in space, engines roaring and lasers clearly visible, and that the Force will give the Chosen One mystic powers, rather than – as in the heroes of your day – scientific learning, skullwork and elbow grease.

To such a writer and dreamer the disappointment that 2001 came and went without the Discovery being sent to Jupiter or Saturn was sharp indeed, because he had believed in the dream of space colonization almost from the outset, and had seen it begin with a Moon landing, and end with a whimper. We should have had permanent space stations by now, a Moon base, a manned expedition to Mars.

It comes as a pleasant shock of hope each time someone else speaks out for the dream. This is an article from Robert Zubrin proposing a clever and clear idea to promote a manned Mars mission (excepts below the cut):

Starting immediately, 10 percent of NASA’s budget would be put aside yearly to accumulate a prize fund. There would be at least two prizes: a $5 billion prize to develop and demonstrate a heavy-lift booster capable of lifting at least 100 tons to low Earth orbit, and a $10 billion prize for the first human mission to Mars…

So to start with, NASA would save a good deal of money by having a heavy-lift booster developed for $5 billion, less than a third of the $18 billion it currently plans to spend over the next six years on its Space Launch System …

This is a novel approach to human space exploration … has a number of remarkable advantages.

… In the first place, this approach renders cost overruns impossible. … Success or failure with this approach depends solely upon the ingenuity of the American people and the workings of the free-enterprise system, not upon political wrangling.

… posting multibillion-dollar prizes for breakthrough accomplishments in space would call into being not only a private space race, but a new kind of aerospace industry, one based on minimum-cost production methods. The existing aerospace industry does not work that way. Rather, the major aerospace companies contract with the government to do a job on a “cost plus” basis, which means that whatever it costs them to do the job, they charge the government a certain percentage more, usually 8 to 12 percent. Therefore, the more it costs the major aerospace companies to do a job for the government, the more money they make. For this reason, their staffs are top-heavy with layer after layer of management bureaucrats, whose sole function is to add to company overhead.

Of course, since the government needs proof that the expenses claimed by the aerospace companies are actually being incurred, vast numbers of accounting personnel are also employed, to keep track of how many labor hours are spent on each and every separate contract.

…  [The aerospace company] would have no incentive to run costs up. .. Furthermore,  their actual base costs would be lower, since their accounting and documentation burden would be much less onerous.

No doubt there would be many people who would be skeptical that a manned Mars mission could be flown for $5 billion — but that wouldn’t matter. If the Mars Prize bill were passed, the only thing that would matter was whether a few investors thought it could. Those interested in making the attempt wouldn’t need to convince a sustained majority in Congress that a humans-to-Mars program could be done cheaply; they would only have to convince a Paul Allen or an Elon Musk.

The level of acceptable risk would also be much higher than is currently the case. Both of these are crucial: The private sector is often vastly more innovative than the government because a consensus is not necessary to start something new, and it is willing to dare the risks required.

But if nobody takes up the challenge, what then? In that case the whole exercise would have cost the taxpayers absolutely nothing.

— Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and of the Mars Society. His book, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, was recently updated and republished by The Free Press.

Onward to Mars!