Commercializing Mars exploration could be NASA’s best bet

Ars Technica recently reported that NASA has issued a request for a proposal to private companies for commercial Mars missions. The space agency apparently intends to apply the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) approach to exploring Mars. 

Taken to its logical conclusion, NASA could upend the historical model of going to Mars just as it has with going back to the moon.

The proposals that NASA is soliciting are modest enough. They consist of satellites and communications relays. The space agency is not contemplating commercial landers on Mars for the time being.

Still, the idea of commercializing Mars exploration will have profound implications for how NASA handles voyages beyond the Earth-Moon system, even up to the first human expeditions to the Red Planet.

NASA has always envisioned the first humans to Mars as an Apollo program writ large.

From the first crewed Mars expedition that would have taken place in the 1980s as proposed by the Space Task Group report released in 1969, to the Obama-era Journey to Mars, the first footsteps on the Red Planet would have been an all-government program. President George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative and President George W. Bush’s Constellation program used the same “Apollo on steroids” model for going to Mars.

If one wants to understand how such a mission to Mars would have worked in fiction, they should go no further than the Andy Weir novel “The Martian,” which became a hit movie directed by Ridley Scott. One of the plot’s interesting aspects was that when it came time to send the stranded astronaut Mark Watney supplies that he needed to survive until he was rescued, NASA turned to the Chinese instead of to an Elon Musk-style character. That plot thread, in retrospect, verges on fantasy, considering developments since the novel and movie came out.

All of the previous attempts to send humans to Mars failed. The Nixon administration never seriously considered going to Mars as proposed by the Space Task Group. The deep space proposals by the two presidents Bush were cancelled by their successors, President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. The Obama-era Journey to Mars was never a serious proposal. Toward the end of the Obama presidency, a panel of space experts informed Congress that NASA lacked the resources, technical and fiscal, to send people to Mars.

The sad truth is that sending humans to Mars and bringing them safely back to Earth has been too expensive for Congress to fund for the benefits such a program would entail. The cost/benefit ratio has even bedeviled the Mars Sample Return mission, though some members of California’s congressional delegation have urged NASA to allocate more funding to the project. Where the money will come from is uncertain.

Proposals already exist for a commercialized program sending humans to Mars using the SpaceX Starship and also for a public/private Mars Sample Return program. The world is lucky that Musk dreams of settling the Red Planet and is developing the hardware to do so at a fraction of the cost that any NASA-centric project would envision. Starship has already become the center for landing humans back on the lunar surface, placing a return to the moon within reach for the first time in over 50 years. The same super rocket ship could take us to Mars as well.

Still, partly because NASA and its international and commercial partners are concentrating on the return to the Moon, a crewed Mars expedition is unlikely to occur before the mid-2030s at the earliest. The SpaceX Starship will have to undergo many test flights before even an uncrewed flight to the Red Planet can be contemplated.

Still, it is not too early to start discussions on how humans can cross the interplanetary gulfs to Mars in a cost-effective manner. Congress could hold a hearing or two. NASA can start discussions with potential commercial partners about how they could enable the long-dreamed but long-delayed crewed mission to Mars.

Sometime within the lifetime of most people, after human beings establish a permanent lunar base, people will step outside a spacecraft to leave their footprints on Mars for the first time. Images of the event will take 20 or so minutes to be transmitted to Earth; such is the distance they must travel. 

But, as the images display on billions of video screens, it will herald the beginning and not the end of another epoch of the expansion of human civilization beyond Earth.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space policy, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars, and Beyond” and most recently, “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.

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