By “Mars” I am actually referring to NASA’s Orion spacecraft programme that has the stated goal of putting human astronauts on the surface of our neighbour planet within the next two decade.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden Jr., for example, hyperbolically declared Friday, Dec. 5, to be “Day One of the Mars Era” after the successful four-and-a-half-hour flight of the Orion space capsule through the inner Van Allen Belt, a radiation barrier surrounding Earth that humans have not penetrated since NASA’s last Apollo mission to the moon in 1972.
Everyone — and I mean everyone — has been calling this launch the “first step” on mankind’s journey from Earth to Mars (with a few orbits of the moon and a planned side-trip to an astroid along the way). A big deal is being made of the fact that the Orion spacecraft involved in this mission is the first one capable of carrying human beings to have penetrated (and successfully re-entered) that nasty Van Allen Belt in more than 40 years.
But all it really adds up to is a publicity stunt. This test flight had as much to do with a real mission to Mars as a promotional movie trailer would have to the real film if the trailer showed up in theatres years before principal shooting on the movie had even begun. It’s a fake, a come-on, in other words.
Why? Because the only thing this Orion mission really did was test the durability of some new anti-radiation shield material NASA has developed. Everything else is shuck and jive at a cost of billions of dollars.
Everyone seems to be forgetting that the capsule itself is only a box, a container, full of sensitive electronic equipment and — someday — even more sensitive human beings.
The most important element of any realistic mission to Mars is the propulsion system that will actually get astronauts there — and back.
And that propulsion system doesn’t exist yet.
Even worse, the system NASA is currently developing for the job is completely inadequate to the task. It’s a pork-barrel, make-work fraud that will pump billions of dollars into Alabama’s economy before NASA is inevitably forced to dump it as a dead-end failure and start from scratch on an entirely new propulsion system.
For the Dec. 5 test flight, the Orion box (sorry, space capsule) was humped into outer space by a Delta IV heavy rocket system, normally used to carry military and commercial satellites into orbit.
A Delta IV heavy can go pretty far. After all, that’s what carries super-sophisticated spy satellites into Geosynchronous Earth Orbit at around 36,000 km where they remain in a fixed position, moving at the same rate as the Earth rotates. That’s how the U.S. can keep a permanent, never-moving, never-blinking eye on particular targets like, say, the Kremlin or North Korea’s nuclear production facilities.
Most satellites operate in Low Earth Orbit (between 100 km and 1,000 km above the Earth’s surface) and the International Space Station is smack dab in the middle of that satellite traffic jam, circuiting the Earth at various altitudes between 350 km and 600 km.
Outer space, by the way, is said to begin at roughly 1,000 km, where the thermosphere (which still contains teensy bits of Earth atmosphere) gives way completely to the void of the Exosphere.
And the Van Allen radiation belts that everyone is supposedly so worked up about also start at about 1,000 km above the Earth and extend out about 60, 000 km. But it’s only the inner belt — roughly between 1,000 km and 6,000 km — that is the truly dangerous part for spacecraft.
That’s why the Delta IV just pushed the Orion capsule to a maximum altitude of 5,800 km for two orbits of the Earth before the unmanned space box was nudged into a plummet back to a splashdown in the Pacific. That supposedly gave the NASA brains the info they were looking for about the effectiveness of the new anti-radiation material and the new avionics being tested on the Dec. 5 flight.
The distance between Earth and Mars, however, is about 225 million km on average, although that can stretch out to more than 400 million km when the two planets are furthest apart. The closest Earth and Mars have ever been (as far as we are able to know in the past 50,000 years) was about 56 million km back in 2003.
But we’re going to get pretty close to that (relatively speaking) a few times in the foreseeable future — an estimated 75.6 million km on July 27, 2018 and 62.1 million on Oct. 13, 2020.
That’s way too soon for NASA to be prepared for any manned mission to Mars, of course, but it’s obvious that we are currently in a period of relative proximity to Mars and there will be plenty of other optimal conjunctures in the coming decades.
I hope you’re getting the message that the 5,800 km that the Delta IV heavy rocket carried the Orion space box on Dec. 5 or even the 36,000 km the Delta IV can push high-end spy satellites into (near) outer space is a far cry from the 500 MILLION km journey to Mars (that’s how far NASA’s last unmanned Curiosity Rover mission to Mars had to travel because spacecraft don’t travel in straight lines — they travel on elliptical, orbital loops).
And no, Curiosity Rover’s launch rocket, the Atlas V, wouldn’t do the trick. A manned spacecraft with up to six people aboard and a human-carrying rover vehicle and a returnable capsule (box) and the fuel necessary to propel it back to Earth and masses and masses of sophisticated equipment weigh a hell of a lot more than a little mechanical surface-crawling drone that ain’t never coming home from the Red Planet.
Obviously a new, more powerful multi-stage propulsion system has to be designed to get that job done.
And that brawny new beast — known as the Space Launch System (SLS) — is currently being developed at NASA’s primary rocket-building facility, the Marshall Space Flight Center located just outside Huntsville, Alabama.
The only problem is this — there’s no way in heaven or hell (or points between) that the SLS as currently envisioned and being built at a cost of billions of dollars a year will get human beings to Mars. It just won’t.
The SLS is being developed on a platform of the 40-year-old technology used to propel the now-retired space shuttles. In many cases, the SLS is actually relying on left-over hardware, such as surplus main engines, from the shuttle era.
And everybody knows it won’t be capable of pushing mankind to Mars. So why are they building it?
Well, we have to start about a decade ago to find the answer to that.
Beginning his second term in office, then-president George W. Bush tried to restart the American space effort by authorizing NASA’s Constellation programme, which had a three-stage goal of 1) completing the International Space Station, 2) returning to the moon “no later than 2020″ and 3) eventually — at some distant, unspecified time — pushing on to Mars.
That’s where planning for the SLS began, and it wasn’t a bad idea, given the intermediate goal of returning to the moon with Mars and its much more ambitious requirements way down the line. A beefed-up propulsion system based on proven, existing shuttle technology would have been just fine for the 750,000-km-or-so round trip to the moon and back.
But then Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. After getting something of a handle on the Iraq, Afghanistan and Wall Street debacles left behind by Bush, Obama turned his attention to space (in the brief period of time before Afghanistan, Iraq, economic turbulence and a few other earth-bound issues reclaimed his attention).
Here’s what Obama had to say about Bush’s space plan in 2010: “I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say, pretty bluntly here, we have been there before.”
Instead, Obama wanted to push on directly to the next stop on NASA’s projected itinerary — Mars. And Obama wanted the funding that would have gone to the moon mission to be re-directed as seed money to develop the new technology that everyone knows would be needed to actually make that unbelievably complicated and ambitious manned mission to Mars happen.
And the key to that technological advance is solid-fuel propulsion, which is much more compact and efficient than the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel system used in shuttle-era rocket engines. Put simply, there is just no way a rocket bound for Mars can carry enough liquid fuel to get the spacecraft completely out of Earth’s gravitational pull, on to its destination and back. That journey is, however, do-able with solid fuel.
But a solid-fuel rocket that is big enough and strong enough and dependable enough to perform the task hasn’t been built yet.
So why are they even bothering with continued development of the liquid-fuel SLS when they should be directing all their energies toward a solid-fuel system — if they do, in fact, really want to put human beings on Mars?
The reusable Orion SLS vehicle package might conceivably make sense as a new bus to the International Space Station, but if that’s its main practical purpose it’s a case of massive overkill. The smallest version of the SLS is capable of lifting 70 tons to orbit and the largest package (including crew capsule) that’s ever going to the space station is 30 tons. The bigger lift would have been necessary for a moon mission, but since the moon is now out as a destination and Mars is not possible … then why keep on building the SLS instead of redirecting that money to new solid-fuel technology development?
Well, that’s actually what Obama’s 2010 shift in space policy envisioned, the big difference being that Obama’s space advisors saw the private sector taking on an increased role in that new-frontier technological research and development (with attendant funding) while the old-fogey liquid-propulsionists dropped back into a supporting role.
Unfortunately for the new-age space cadets, the Obama administration at that point was still trying to work with the U.S. Congress in implementing policy and writing laws. Which meant Obama’s Mars plans and dreams got changed and mutated and pretty much mutilated on their way through the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
The space policy that came out the other end of the process had switched the positions of cart and horse (so to speak). Instead of committing massive, change-making funding to a new propulsion system that would actually get man to Mars, the administration’s main financial commitment would now remain with development of the antiquated, dead-end SLS already in the works.
Why? It’s politics, Jake.
Actually that should be “Dick” not Jake, since the central character in this political thriller is 80-year-old Richard Shelby, senior U.S. senator for the state of Alabama and one of the most powerful men in Congress, although there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him before.
Shelby, who was first elected to the Senate in 1986 as a conservative Democrat and switched sides to join the Republicans in 1994 when they gained the majority in Congress during the Clinton administration, hefts a big stick in Washington — and he likes using it.
Shelby is currently ranking Republican on the Senate’s all-powerful appropriations (budgets and spending) committee and is about to become chairman of that committee when the new Republican-dominated Senate reconvenes in the New Year. He also sits on the Senate banking committee and is likely to become chairman there too.
As well, Shelby is the ranking Republican on the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA. Over the past two decades he has been a major player on almost every important Senate committee concerned with the military, intelligence community, NASA, banking, finance and the insurance industry (one of his principal campaign contributors along with the aerospace industry).
And Shelby just happens to be the senior U.S. senator representing the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville (with its thousands and thousands of well-paid employees) which is the planning, co-ordinating and assembly hub for the SLS project. He also represents the United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture in nearby Decatur that is the primary contractor for the SLS project and builds the Delta and Atlas rockets that NASA currently uses (and which also employs thousands and thousands of well-paid aerospace engineers and technicians and grease monkeys and broom-pushers — all of them Alabama voters).
So, of course, Shelby thinks the proven, successful (apart from the occasional shuttle disaster), decades-old SLS technology that is being worked on at Marshall Space Flight Center and United Launch Alliance is far superior to what Shelby calls the unproven “faith-based initiative” of commercial space entrepreneurs like SpaceX’s Elon Musk and others who want to design and develop propulsion systems that will actually get to Mars, not just the moon. (The fact that those maverick space entrepreneurs aren’t located on Shelby’s turf and aren’t beholden to him in any way may or may not have something to do with that view. I’ll let you be the judge of that.)
As I said before, Shelby isn’t afraid to throw his weight around to get his way. Shortly before the Obama space plan was sent to Congress, Shelby had already placed a hold on Senate confirmation of 70 nominees for appointment to various positions in the Obama administration — until Obama approved two of Shelby’s pet projects, one being a very lucrative contract for Boeing to build more of its expensive KC-130 mid-air refuelling supertankers.
So, battered and bruised by that experience and with so much else on his plate, the (relatively) newbie president just didn’t have the ballistics to resist when Shelby gutted his intended space programme by committing most of the attached development funding to the ongoing SLS project instead of shifting billion and billions to the up-and-comers who actually have their sights set on Mars.
That’s why those billions and billions of American taxpayer dollars will keep flowing into northern Alabama to support rocketry development that is going nowhere but is keeping an entrenched, protected industry on the federal gravy train for years to come and is guaranteeing thousands and thousands of well-paying skilled jobs to voters in Richard Shelby’s otherwise impoverished constituency.
UPDATE: On a related note, here’s a link to a Washington Post story about how NASA wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on a completely useless endeavour because of political pressure.
And that’s why the Dec. 5 Orion test flight is not “Day One of the Mars Era” but is instead just a PR show for a hi-tech, high-profit sham that cannot possibly deliver on what its purported mission is. And every day those billions of dollars keep being funnelled into the SLS project is one more day further away from an actual successful manned mission to Mars.
Here’s a link to a very good overview of the whole situation from PBS.
Denver Post cartoonist Mike Keefe gets it.
Now, all that being said, I don’t actually give a rat’s ass about putting human beings on Mars.
At a cost of billions and billions of dollars — probably more than a trillion when all is said and done — nothing beneficial to mankind will come of sending human beings to Mars in my lifetime, probably not in my kids’ lifetimes and possibly not even in my grandchildren’s lifetimes (if they should be so lucky — or unlucky — as to survive the many other plagues and pestilences that will be visited on humanity in the next few decades).
Whether that money goes to Richard Shelby’s entrenched aerospace cronies and contributors or whether it goes to Elon Musk and his band of entrepreneurial commercial space cowboys, I really don’t care. It’s all money down the drain as far as I’m concerned.
I can think of so many other worthwhile, perhaps civilization-changing (or even -saving) uses those billions could be put to here on Earth.
And Fowl Language cartoonist Brian Gordon gets that.
Mankind is not going to emigrate to Mars en mass any more than we are going to resettle on the floor of the Pacific Ocean or in some other alien, hostile environment. We’re stuck here on the surface of Earth, so we really should be putting our money and our brains and our commitment to saving this world instead of taking pointless thrill rides to other worlds.
What really bugs me the most of about this whole Mars fandango is the fact we are being essentially lied to and treated like chumps while taxpayers’ pockets are being picked to pay for a massive masquerade.
The emperor has no clothes. That’s the real truth about Mars.