Science and Exploration

Kicking The Can Down the Road to Mars

By Keith Cowing
April 7, 2015
Filed under ,
Kicking The Can Down the Road to Mars
Kicking The Can Down the Road to Mars

I just listened to 45 minutes of NASA presentations at the NASA Advisory Committee’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee Meeting. The topic: radiation risks during a human mission to Mars. I have seen this movie before.
I was not exactly sure who was talking since no one ever bothers to give their names such that people listening on telephone/Webex know who’s who. The topic was radiation and a human mission to Mars. Let me preface all of this by noting that I organized peer reviews and advisory panel for NASA’s life science division back in the 80 and 90s. I have been listening to this discussion at various levels of technical jargon for 30 years. What I heard today could have easily been said 20 years ago – and often was. It does not matter now who the NASA speaker is or was.

In a nutshell NASA feels today (as it has for a while) that the radiation risk to humans traveling to/from a mission to the Martian surface is acceptable. There are no show stoppers. No one is likely to die, get hurt, not be able to do their job, help others etc. When pushed a bit they will add this caveat: the risk of subsequent cancers from such a mission is higher than you’d otherwise expect for people of the same age/health. Otherwise the mission is doable – and the NASA life science folks know all that they need to know. Or do they?

8 April update: This observation by a NAC HEO committee member today is rather illuminating:

Eventually during these presentations someone from the committee (or the news media) will ask if NASA is so confident that a crew can survive and perform a complete mission, then why is NASA continually spending money to understand the radiation risks. The NASA speaker will do their best to make sure the questioner knows that A. the speaker is the expert and B. of course NASA understands the risk. But when pressed again as to why the money needs to be spent year after year they start talking about trying to understand how to mitigate the risk i.e. what things need to be built – what procedures need to be followed – to keep the crew safe.

Today’s speaker said that the current exercise device on the ISS could not be used on a mission to Mars without “slight” alterations. I worked at NASA. “Slight” = $50-100 million and 5 years. You never get them to answer if the current device will be adequate since a “yes” from them would mean less funding to work on the 0.01% of the nits they want to fiddle with. No one works with what they have. Its all got to be new and shiny even if it takes NASA a decade to develop and uses technology no one in the real world uses any more.

When I sat in meetings at NASA In the mid-80s the speakers talked about doing life science research so as to be ready to support the missions to Mars that NASA would do in the early 2000s. Then in was 2010s. Now its the mid 2030s. So long as NASA has a goal that is so far away, whatever life science research you do to get ready is OK since whatever you do will help – somehow. But there is no urgency to get done by a certain date and no one has actually said “yes we are going to Mars on this date in this spaceship” yet. So whatever you do is OK. Since the spaceship and the mission are never known beyond Powerpoint you can only answer general questions and when specificity is called for you punt and say “show me the mission and then I can tell you what I need” Of course the mission designers say “tell me what you need and I will tell you what you can have”. So it all gets into Catch-22 Zone rather quickly. Space Station Freedom/ISS development had a lot of this.

So you can’t get much of an answer as to what exercise equipment or storm shelters might be needed on a Mars mission since the life science person has no mission design to analyze against. Its not their fault. And if that life science person uses available data to give you and answer they’ll get yelled at since its not ‘baselined’ and everything is ‘notional’ at NASA. Conversely, the mission is in the 2030s somewhere so the designers are not going to even begin to design anything for another decade. As such you can use the ‘notional’ Powerpoint template and draw pictures to your heart’s content since – well, its all “notional”. One committee member said today that a lot of this discussion is about “things in the future” when the space hardware is designed. Gee, I heard that in 1985, 1995, 2005, and now in 2015. When in doubt: punt. “NASA” = “Never A Straight Answer”.

And as is always the case, someone asked if NASA has looked at what OSHA, DoD, EPA etc. does i.e. other government agencies who send employees into dangerous areas – including radiation hazards. The response is that they all seem to have figured out how to do this. But not NASA. As is always the case NASA either says that these other agencies have solutions that do not apply to NASA or “yea, yea we’ve talked to them – but we work in outer space so …”

And of course none of these Mars missions in the 2030s are in any budget – notional, proposed, or projected – that means anything to anyone actually working at NASA today. So it is hard to blame people who can’t give you a straight answer. Just look at what their management has given them to work with – and what the agency has had to work with in terms of guidance from Congress and the White House. Just in the past 10-12 years NASA has veered away from the shuttle towards the Moon, then away from the ISS to Mars and away from the Moon and back to ISS, and now back to Mars (and maybe the Moon) and also some boulder on an asteroid.

NASA’s solution now is to just say that everything it does – regardless of the real connection to sending humans to Mars – is on the “Road to Mars” even if NASA does not have a map, a car, or enough money to put gas in their tank or buy their meals – while on the road. And that road takes the most illogical, parsed, backtracking, time-wasting, inefficient route possible to reach the eventual destination after decades of confusion.

Depressed yet? I sure am. I grew up during the Apollo years being told we’d have humans on Mars in 1981. I was 14 when they landed on the Moon. The people who told me about going to Mars by 1981 were the same ones who had just gone from zero to humans on the Moon in less than 10 years. Of course I believed them.

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