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Mars Mars Mars Mars
In April I was fortunate to be selected a NASA Social attendee for the CRS-8 launch at Kennedy Space Center. NASA spent two days ferrying 50 of social media users around the complex, culminating in the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket on a resupply of the International Space Station. It was an amazing experience. I don't think I am exaggerating when I say it was a once in a lifetime event for me.
During the event, I was consistently impressed by the dedication of the NASA employees. These are people who have dedicated their entire lives to what I consider one of the great endeavors of humanity: manned space exploration. I was honored and humbled that scores of busy scientists, administrators, and astronauts took time out of their schedules to talk with us and answer our questions.
If there's one thing that everyone at NASA is focused on, it's the plan to go to Mars. This is a noble goal, to be sure. The problem is that it's basically never going to happen given current funding levels and spaceflight plans. This is an endemic problem with a government organization that is subject to the whims of congressional budgets. Here I want to share some of the highlights of my trip, and also discuss why NASA is putting a brave face on a hopeless goal.
NASA Knows How to Do Big Things
I was continually struck by the size of the the projects that NASA has completed in the past sixty-odd years. Take a moment to look at this thing:
That's the Crawler-Transporter. It weighs 6 million pounds and can transport 18 million pounds from the Vehicle Assemble Building to the launchpad. It was built in 1965 and remains the largest self-powered land vehicle in the world.
Or, take a look at the Vehicle Assembly Building:
It's 525 feet tall and has the sixth-largest interior space in the world. It's the tallest building in US that isn't in a city.
Clearly, NASA knows how to take on big challenges. Unfortunately, when you look at the specifics things aren't so rosy.
The current plan for NASA is to send men to Mars by the 2030s. Obviously, to do that we need a way to lift a huge amount of hardware out of our gravity well. The rocket being designed for this is the Space Launch System. Some of the cost-cutting measures for the SLS are clever. It will use a refurbished shuttle main tank as a body, and the first 4 SLS launches will use space Shuttle rocket engines that are in storage.
On it's own, the SLS is a perfectly acceptable launch vehicle (assuming of course you ignore the complete lack of reusability). NASA says that the final, most powerful configuration of the SLS will put 290,000 pounds of payload in to Low Earth Orbit, which is where presumably you would marshal all the equipment needed to then actually fly to Mars.
Here's the problem: you still need seven to nine launches of the SLS to put enough stuff in to orbit to take on a Mars mission. I spoke with one NASA representative about the current plans for assembling and launching the SLS. The Vehicle Assembly Building could theoretically be used to assemble 4 SLS rockets in parallel - that's what it was originally designed to do for the Saturn V back in the 60s.
However, there aren't any plans to build SLS rockets in parallel. The representative I spoke with said that they are going to build the SLS one rocket at a time, and only one of the two available crawlers will be used (it had to be retrofitted to support the increased weight). For the initial SLS rockets, the build time is going to be nine months. However, they hope to get that down to six months with some practice.
That's all amazing on it's own, for sure - building and launching a rocket that's larger than the Saturn V every six months is a massive undertaking, and I have no doubt that NASA can pull it off. However, that gets us nowhere close to Mars. You can't take five years to launch enough stuff in to orbit to begin the trip to Mars. That's far too long to leave all that equipment sitting around up there before you do anything with it. Also note that assumes a perfect safety record - something that is an extreme challenge for large rockets. In fact, the Saturn V is the only man-rated rocket system that never exploded while people were riding it to orbit (although there were some close calls).
The reality is that everyone at NASA knows this is not a realistic plan for going to Mars, but they have to focus on something big. They are trying to make the best of a bad situation. That's admirable, but it doesn't change that fact that it's not a realistic way to get to Mars.
Can SpaceX jump in and save the day? Perhaps. Just this month, they announced plans to land a ship on Mars by 2018. Given the gigantic cost of the SLS, there's definitely an opportunity for an upstart like SpaceX to jump in and do things more cheaply. Just yesterday Elon's company successfully recovered their first stage on a barge for the second time, so they seem to be on the right path.
Anyway, to sum up my NASA trip: NASA is an amazing place. The people who work there are amazing and dedicated. Unfortunately, their manned space exploration project is not realistic. Here's hoping SpaceX can save the day.
Here's a picture of me in front of the Falcon 9 the day it launched:
And here's a picture of the Falcon 9 on it's way to the ISS for CRS-8: