Science and Exploration

Empty Promises On NASA’s Road to Mars

By Keith Cowing
June 22, 2015
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Empty Promises On NASA’s Road to Mars
Empty Promises

These days you can’t seem to go anywhere in the Internet without seeing #JourneyToMars slapped on Tweets about, well, everything that NASA does – regardless of how it is actually related to sending humans to Mars.
Its in press release titles, on posters, YouTube videos. NASA is all about the “Journey To Mars” these days and its marketing campaign reflects a concerted effort to make you truly believe that this is happening – except … it is not.

I got this media advisory “Media Invited to Tour Journey to Mars Exhibits with Senior NASA Leaders” today: “Senior NASA officials will help showcase the agency’s work on the Journey to Mars during a Mars Day on the Hill event Thursday, June 25, in the Rayburn House Office Building Foyer in Washington. NASA Associate Administrators Bill Gerstenmaier, John Grunsfeld and Steve Jurczyk will be joined by astronauts Reid Wiseman and Barry “Butch” Wilmore for a 3:30 p.m. EDT media tour of exhibits. NASA’s Journey to Mars incorporates critical work being done across the agency. The work will build on the extraordinary accomplishments of NASA’s scientific exploration of the Red Planet while advancing the development of new cross-cutting space technologies that also have potential for applications here on Earth. The journey also will take advantage of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule.”

“New Cross-cutting space technologies” from “critical work being done across the agency”, eh? How exciting.

If you believe that how NASA is organized reflects how it is governed – and how it operates, then NASA Headquarters tells the rest of the agency what to do – and they do what they are directed to do. This, of course is far from how the agency actually works. NASA Field Centers take money and overall direction from NASA HQ but often go off and do what they want to do – and to be certain that this continues, they use back door mechanisms to ensure that Congress tells NASA HQ what to do. But then the White House tells NASA HQ what to do and asks Congress to pay for it and, well, we’ve seen that movie before. On a good day, how NASA does things is more of a stand off or compromise between HQ and the field centers with the HQ directorates trying to get missions up and running.

If (again) you believe that form follows function, then the major directorates at NASA HQ – Human Exploration and Operations DIrectorate (HEOMD), Science Mission Directorate (SMD), Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), and (to some extent) the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) all have some sort of role in this whole #JourneyToMars thing. Yes there are councils and boards and working groups that are supposed to coordinate all of these teams so as to come up with the spaceship that will take humans to Mars – but its not as neat and pretty as the PAO graphics would have you think since … there’s no money.

In order to plan and implement a #JourneyToMars a lot of things need to be done before hand so as to build this complex infrastructure and send it to another planet. Doing your homework first, in a systematic way with efforts from all parts of NASA feeding into a coordinated master plan is essential. If things are not coordinated, timelines stretch out and costs go up. Given that this is likely to be the largest, most complex and expensive thing NASA has ever done, the impetus to have a good plan – and clear understanding of fiscal resources is paramount. Yes, I can hear you snickering.

Let’s play with a few technology and architecture drivers. There are many but I’ll pick a few biggies.

Artificial gravity. Do we spin or not spin the vehicle that takes people to Mars? Despite decades of experience in low Earth orbit I don’t see anyone being able to make a declarative decision either way. It was pretty much the same in the 1980/90s when I worked at NASA’s life sciences division and then later on Space Station Freedom (on the 2.5 meter centrifuge). First we needed the centrifuge. Then we didn’t. Now maybe we did after all. Regardless of bad decisions, this is a big deal if you are trying to design a spacecraft to take people on a multi-year trip to Mars. If it does not spin then its a lot easier (and cheaper) to build than if it does.

So … wouldn’t you think that one of the prime #JourneyToMars things you could have been doing – and should now be enhancing – is a series of very long duration (multi-year) experiments on ISS – with many crew members – designed to answer the question once and for all? That does not seem to be the plan. The sooner you get that answer, the sooner you can make major design decisions for your Mars spacecraft. But if you look at NASA’s stated strategy – well, there is none. They just continue to cobble together in-house experiments and whatever is submitted from outside NASA and fund what shows up in the mail. And they throw #YearInSpace all over things they Tweet so as to make you thing that there is more of a plan than there actually is. When will NASA start tweeting things with #2YearsInSpace ? Given that NASA plans to halt use of ISS in 2024, the time to do these multi-year missions in sufficient numbers so as to get a representative population’s worth of data is a lot more limited than you might think.

Life on Mars i.e. is there any? One of the big issues with sending humans to Mars has always been the issue of us contaminating the planet with Earth life – especially if there are already Martians there. A number of folks who design all of these humans on Mars reference missions either dismiss the issue as being above their pay grade or say that it is irrelevant. Others punt and say that until there is an answer – one way or another – how they plan human missions on the surface will be hard to nail down. Usually the discussion distills down to the perennial Decadal Plan favorite: a sample return mission. Over the past decades this hugely expensive and complex sample mission has been repeatedly on and off official schedules – as a single mission, then as part of a chain of missions, and then as something in between. Now it seems to be well over the rainbow into the mid 2020s. Lets just say it wouldn’t be back on Earth with a sample for analysis until 2025. That’s ten years from now. Assuming that data from one series of samples from one location somehow placates the astrobiology folks who worry about these things, then how humans will work on Mars will be a TBD until the middle of the next decade – later than is desirable if you are going to be planning to do things in the early 2030s on Mars – with a presence you’d hope would span multiple missions.

NASA could try some risk reduction efforts much earlier and actually send life detection experiments – on Mars. But they seem to be totally spooked by that notion of failing and therefore get stuck in the “Mars was so much like Earth once – but we have no idea what Mars life might look like” loop that they are paralyzed from even trying. The echo of Viking results from 40 years ago (when NASA last tried to do this) still really scares them. You could drop a big simple payload the size of Curiosity (minus the driving parts) on Mars with a big scoop and a drill and try a hundred different approaches to what might be there based on terrestrial biology and other biochemistries that might exist there. Use little rovers like Sojourner if you need to go look around. Or send a bunch of very very very simple landers with simple one-shot instrumentation. While there is no guarantee that existing life would be detected or the sterility of a lifeless Mars could be affirmed, but it would give you a chance to get answer sooner and more cheaply than expecting billions to be sent on bringing a small bit of Mars back to Earth. But no. NASA needs to mindlessly follow the sample return mantra it has feed itself via its own advisory committees since the middle of the last century.

When I worked at NASA back in the day I quickly discovered that NASA loved to say that they were working on sending humans to Mars because it sounded good and felt good to say – even though they really were not doing much of anything directly related to sending humans to Mars. You see, even the most obscure life science project could have some relevance maybe someday in a TBD future on something that might assist people on perhaps going to Mars eventually – fingers crossed. And if the climate within NASA shifted such that humans to Mars was taboo then, well, a swift denial would be easy to issue. Either way progress was always slow, uncoordinated, and easily upset by funding much more important things than life science – which is what ALWAYS happens.

Let’s look a little bit closer to something that was in the news recently. NASA just tested the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) thing again. They got loads of data but its parachute failed and NASA may build another – or maybe not. So … if this is a design path that NASA is investigating for landing large things (humans) on Mars then when does LDSD have to prove itself worthwhile/not worthwhile? What if it flops – does NASA have an established flow chart/time table that seeks to test alternative approaches – one that specifies when the final mode of entering Martian atmosphere for a human mission architecture has to be decided upon? No GO/NO GO intersection point between this test article and its technology and a humans Mars mission has been published as far as I can tell. So is this an interesting project without an otherwise identifiable place in an actual plan to build actual hardware for the #JourneyToMars? Anyone remember the Max Launch Abort System?

Similarly I have to ask where the NASA plan is to show what decisions will need to be made – and when – with regard to centrifugation/no centrifugation, life on Mars/sterile Mars, radiation countermeasures, landing systems, propulsion (chemical vs solar electric) etc. When you ask NASA for this they have nothing to give you other than cartoons with lots of arrows and pictures of things that have no funding. You’d expect that the #JourneyToMars would have a number of key decision points that the agency’s directorates and field centers are tasked to pursue. A nice flow chart with dates on it would be a good start even if the dates are “notional”. When does input from SMD on life potential/presence on Mars need to be input? When do STMD and ARMD need to provide their input on landing systems? When do HEOMD (and STMD) decide upon the life support systems (tested on ISS) are reliable enough for a trip to Mars? When does HEOMD need to come back with long duration human design specs? And how does all of this reflect back against the oft-stated intent on the part of this Administration to send humans to Mars in the 2030s?

As best as I can tell no one has set a Preliminary Requirements Review date for #JourneyToMars with humans mission #1. Nor has anything other than charts with NOTIONAL and PRE-DECISIONAL stamped all over them been created. NASA has only been developing humans Mars missions for what, 40 years? Given how long it has taken Orion and SLS to become real, one would expect that building something much more complex – something that spans the better part of a decade to achieve – would take at least as long as SLS/Orion to design, build, and test. If NASA only has ISS until 2024 to use as a testbed to flight certify humans for missions to Mars, and this “by the 2030s” mantra that Charlie Bolden loves to use is true, then NASA will need to get very darned serious about its design for a mission to Mars by the end of this decade. As such you would be expecting that NASA has a clear unified plan with sufficient funding, to lead up to the point where it makes these design decisions. If it exists NASA has never disclosed its existence.

HEOMD Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier refuses to be pinned down when it comes to schedules and loves to talk about options, and pathways, and flexibility, etc. Given a total lack of a real budget, this is understandable. Gerst is a true believer and has kept many things alive that might otherwise have faltered and faded due to neglect. But, based on the typical NASA way of doing things, this is just a fantasy on his part (and NASA’s) – one that insults the intelligence of anyone whose paid any attention to how NASA works. Gerstenmaier has no defined budget that means much of anything for more than a year or two at a time and this notional 2030s #JourneyToMars thing that he has to do the sales campaign for is going to require a steady budget for (at least) all of the 2020s and most of the 2030s. Absent such a commitment is it not deceptive to imply that such a budget (ergo support) is there?

One quick look back at what happened to NASA’s budget and plans in the years after President Bush’s Vision for Exploration (VSE) was announced in 2004 should provide ample warning of what can happen despite the best intentions. The VSE called for a return to the Moon by 2020. Tick tock. It now looks like the first crewed flight of Orion on SLS might be in 2021. That’s quite a difference in capability from what was envisioned in 2004. Oh yes and the asteroid mission (which NASA claims is critical on the path toward the #JourneyToMars) is now opposed by Congress, the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), and a substantial number of people who want to send humans to Mars. Indeed the NAC wants to skip the human part of it all together and send the solar electric propulsion stage to Phobos and back instead. Imagine that: a stepping stone on the #JourneyToMars that actually travels to Mars – and back.

What is the point I am trying to make? Simple: NASA’s #JourneyToMars “plan” is a hoax. There is no money for it. Not even close. There is no discernible “plan”- just cartoons and talking points. NASA is hoping that pretty pictures, an implied (but imaginary) strategy, and non-stop PR will keep the notion of going to Mars alive long enough so that the next Administration will buy into it – and the go-nowhere while pretending to go some where circus gets another reprieve.

It has worked before. NASA has been working on plans to send humans to Mars since the 1960s. We have been 20 years away from sending humans to Mars for half a century.

Now Charlie Bolden seems to derive a certain amount of happiness by saying “we are no longer 20 years away from Mars”. What he is really saying is “Hooray – we now suck less at NASA”.

But NASA is not any closer to sending humans to Mars – not in the ways that truly matter.

Kicking The Can Down the Road to Mars, earlier post (2015)
Going In Circles On The Road to Mars, earlier post (2015)
NASA and Mars: #EpicFail, earlier post (2015)
Let’s Stop Going in Circles – And Go Somewhere, earlier post (2002)

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.