Status Report

Mars Now 1.1 – We Can’t Get There From Here

By SpaceRef Editor
July 17, 2001
Filed under , ,

We’re not living in the 2001 we expected to have. As Avery Brooks puts
it in the IBM commercials, “they promised us flying cars!”
Retrospectives on the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” have wondered at
our shortfall in space technology from the movie’s well-researched
projections. Many authoritative plans had us on Mars as early as the
1980s. This “space gap” between the expected future and the reality of
our times inspires much tub-thumping by advocates of new large-scale
space projects. Their explanation for the space gap is a lack of
national will: Americans have become whiny, degenerate slackers, and if
we just recover the grit of the Greatest Generation and declare a new
government crash program, we can do anything. But the real answer is
much more disconcerting: we can‚t get there from here. Given the
structure of our space efforts, no policy or program can bring about the
sustainable settlement of Mars. Not in two Presidential terms, not in
the scope of NASA’s 20-year plan. Not ever.

I’ll be spending a lot of time in this column backing up the following
statement with a great range of evidence, but here it is in its baldest

No space program can ever succeed in creating a sustainable human
presence beyond Earth.

That’s “can” not “will.” Popular demand, Presidential inspiration,
generational fortitude – all irrelevant. The tools we have are
incapable of doing the job, if what we want is a permanent, sustainable
human presence on Mars.

It’s no coincidence that the few government-affiliated space projects
that are doing important, useful work are being starved for funding.
Not an accident, not a matter of a policy to change with a new NASA
administrator. It’s fundamental: the structure of space efforts
worldwide, a legacy of Cold War history, can only produce
engineering-driven one-shot spectaculars.

I think – I’m not sure, and this column will be looking at the evidence
– that spending resources and attention on “mules” – sterile,
non-sustainable technological efforts such as Apollo or the ISS –
actually retards our development. In a few weeks, this column will
focus on the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous decision, which was as critical to
Apollo’s success as it was crippling to sustainable space settlement.
The necessities of NASA-managed projects are in direct opposition to the
goals of a sustained expansion into space. Bureaucracy and the unknown
are natural enemies, and exploration and settlement are all about the
unknown. Some segments of society are familiar with managing risk: the
military and the commercial are obvious and often discussed in the
context of space exploration. But explorers themselves – both the field
and the armchair types – have been an important force in some cultures
and at some times, as well. In any realistic plan to settle Mars, the
real constituency for exploration and settlement has to be identified
and recruited. And they’re not in Congress, and not – openly – in
management jobs at NASA.

So why don‚t we have our promised future? Simply, the tools we used to
build it took us farther from it than if we’d done nothing. Meanwhile,
the computer and telecommunications industries used the right means to
make their technologies affordable, ubiquitous and effective (i.e.,
faster, better, cheaper), and changed the very nature of civilization
from courtship to international trade to political revolution.

There can be a space revolution to match the internet revolution.
Another question this column will ask is whether – or, more accurately,
how soon – a space revolution will get us to Mars. I’ll try to show
that while a crash program might land us on Mars sooner, only an
internet-style sea change can possibly get us there to stay. For that
sort of change to come about, we have to understand why the current
system can’t possibly work. The missing elements – technological,
economic and cultural – that we‚ll need for the sustainable settlement
of Mars have to be identified. I’ll be using this column to spotlight
the people working on those issues and encourage support for their
projects. Finally, we have to redirect our efforts away from the
useless and onto the critical projects that will get us to Mars.

I believe – and this is another statement of faith – that we can begin
the sustainable settlement of Mars in this generation. But it won’t
happen unless we understand precisely what must be done to reach that
goal, and what obstructs it. And, we must act. If we don‚t, our
historical experience of exploration shows that we will reach and settle
Mars, but that centuries may well pass first. It falls to us to settle
Mars now. We can get there, but not if we continue down the pathways of
the past. No more Apollos: next time we go to stay.

Next week: “Queen Elizabeth’s Hab” In 1578, Martin Frobisher built
England’s first house in the New World – near Devon Island in the
Canadian Arctic – and failed in establishing a permanent, sustainable
settlement. Was his expedition NASA’s Design Reference Mission or
Zubrin’s Mars Direct? How robust an exploration technology base do we

Mars Now is a weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight,
Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.
Views expressed here are strictly the author’s and do not
necessarily represent Foundation policy.

To subscribe or unsubscribe, contact the author at

SpaceRef staff editor.