NASA’s predicament regarding Mars is that the agency simply doesn’t have sufficient funds for a Mars program, despite enthusiasm within the agency for Mars.
Although NASA continues to report that they are on the road to Mars, and are aiming to land humans there sometime in the 2030’s, numerous experts have told NASA that the funds aren’t there to support this goal, and that they’re probably better off joining with the other major space agencies and setting their sights on the more modest goal of Luna. Experts have also advised that the Asteroid Redirect Mission would be less useful than a return to Luna.
I agree. Luna is a reasonably good Mars analog (dusty, rocky, cratered, nearly airless, meteorites, regolith, radiation, lots of basalt), where we can gain valuable experience in planetary exploration and settlement, at a location that we can go to and come back from at any time.
Aside from that important advantage, Luna offers many great opportunities that make it worth opening up in its own right – we can do unique science on Luna, it’s likely to be one of the most popular (if not the most popular) destination for space tourism, and it’s an enormous treasure trove of resources to support space industry. If our intention is to build large space stations or power satellites in Earth orbit, it will be cheaper to source the necessary materials from Luna’s much shallower gravity well.
Many within NASA want to avoid returning to Luna, being reluctant to invest any of its limited budget in repeating a past achievement. However, a return to Luna would not simply be another human landing. It would involve:
- establishing permanent habitats, probably some combination of inflatables and 3D printing
- constructing solar power systems on the surface to power a base
- extracting oxygen from the lunar regolith
- mining ices from permanently-shadowed craters at the lunar poles
- growing food in greenhouses
- using pressurised rovers
and many other activities. None of these have ever been done on Luna before, and the experience gained would be extremely relevant to Mars.
But how does this make Mars affordable?
Mars will become affordable by facilitating the ongoing development of the space industry. If companies like Moon Express, Shackleton Energy, Astrobotic, and others, are able to establish themselves on the lunar surface, this will lead to similar and more ambitious plans by other entrepreneurs, who will envisage lunar hotels, mines, and factories.
Every time a new business establishes themselves on Luna, the entrepreneurs of the world become inspired in that direction. Observing growth in the lunar industry, it’s inevitable that some will be inspired to develop useful products to support the growing lunar economy. Products could include:
- self-contained and radiation-resistant hab modules (like the B330)
- dedicated lunar ascent/descent vehicles
- pressurised rovers
- solar panel factories
- solar-powered oxygen factories
- solar-powered iron refineries
- ice-mining robots
- inflatable lunar greenhouses
- lunar internet satellites
and so forth.
As the lunar economy expands, more and more components become available, and some of these will either be applicable to Mars, or could be adapted to Mars.
If NASA, ESA, Roscosmos, CNSA and other space agencies establish a presence on Luna, this will be a great inspiration to space companies. The data will be helpful, as will the technological development. And, once companies begin developing various hardware components to support lunar activities, the space agencies can then become customers.
NASA have begun reducing the cost of ISS support by outsourcing cargo and crew transport to private companies like SpaceX and Boeing. This is a trend that seems likely to continue. With the upcoming Red Dragon mission in 2020, NASA and SpaceX will demonstrate the use of the Dragon capsule to land a payload of around 2 tonnes on Mars. This landing system might cost on the order of $250 million, which is probably less than one quarter of the cost of the landing system used for Curiosity (a 900 kg payload). If the Dragon capsule can be demonstrated to be a comparatively low cost landing system for Luna or Mars, then NASA and potentially other space agencies will be inclined to use it in future missions, greatly reducing their cost.
Similarly, the B330 inflatable space habitats being developed by Bigelow Aerospace are another example of commercial space hardware that could save space agencies money.
Every time new commercial space hardware becomes available, the potential cost of space missions come down. Not only can architectures be made more efficient (as I showed in The International Mars Research Station), but the development and manufacturing costs of hardware no longer need to be absorbed by space agency budgets. They are effectively outsourced to entrepreneurs, who can, usually, achieve the same or better result for a much lower cost.
No space agency can currently afford human exploration of Mars (although a consortium potentially could). However, if the basic hardware elements, such as vehicles, habitats, greenhouses, power systems, space suits, and so forth, are already available from commercial space companies, then they almost certainly will be able to. None of these products are going to cost billions of dollars once on the market.
The way to create this situation, where numerous space companies are developing new products to support space industry, is to facilitate the development of lunar industry, including tourism and potentially settlement. It’s simply much easier to close the business case for lunar enterprises, and for the space agencies. Contrary to popular belief, lunar exploration and base development is not a diversion from Mars, and won’t delay the Mars program – it will make the Mars program affordable, and thereby accelerate it.
If NASA remains fixated on Mars and determined to avoid Luna, then they simply will not gain the benefits of lunar exploration, while ESA and the other major agencies will. However, at least they will be able to buy the commercial off-the-shelf components to make Mars missions affordable, when they become available.