Rumors are circulating that the Trump team is considering a return to the Moon as the basis for its space policy. If done properly, this could be a very good thing.
NASA needs a clear near-term goal, but that goal should be humans to Mars. Mars is where the science is, it is where the challenge is, and it is where the future is. Because it once had oceans, rivers and lakes, Mars is the Rosetta Stone for telling us the truth about the potential prevalence and diversity of life in the universe. It is also the thrilling challenge that would draw millions of bold young people into science and engineering, creating massive amounts of intellectual capital that will strengthen the nation in peace and war for decades. It is also the closest world that has all the resources needed for life and technological civilization, the new frontier to an open future for humanity as a multi-planet spacefaring species.
A return to the Moon offers at best a pale reflection of such extraordinary benefits. It is thus the wrong plan for NASA. But at least it is a plan, and as such is far superior to the option of continuing with the chaotic aimlessness of Obama space policy, which, not being a plan, is not even wrong.
But we can do better. From a technological point of view, we are far closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than we were to send men to the Moon in 1961, when President Kennedy started the Apollo program, and we were there eight years later. Furthermore, that was done by a nation with barely more than half the population and one quarter the GNP of America today. Given the will, we could certainly land humans on Mars by the end of the current administration’s prospective second term.
So, the argument frequently advanced by hard-core lunar advocates that the Moon should be our goal because we are supposedly incapable of going to Mars is simply wrong. Moreover, adopting such a declaration of impotence is hardly a way to make America great again. Furthermore, it is a prescription for program failure, as demonstrated by the collapse of the Bush administration’s Moon base program shortly after Obama took the reins. A return to the Moon did not capture the public’s imagination, and consequently had no public support. When Obama moved to kill it, it died utterly defenseless, and barely mourned.
But a Mars-only effort can easily be turned by timid bureaucrats from a program into a “vision,” a strictly nominal goal whose primary purpose is to provide an excuse for endless spending on an assortment of futuristic technologies. The requirements for such technologies are then written into the Mars mission plan, thereby making it impossible.
This is where a Moon program can help. We clearly know how to go to the Moon, and a properly designed lunar transportation system can also be used as the basis for sending human to Mars. Not only that, but the existence of such operational hardware will very forcefully incentivize Mars mission planners to use it, rather than grandiose futuristic vaporware, as the basis of their thinking. This is a complete game changer.
The propulsion requirements to go from low-Earth orbit (LEO) to low lunar orbit are identical to that needed to go from LEO to a trans-Mars trajectory. So, any heavy-lift system that could, for example, deliver 40 tons to lunar orbit could also send a 40-ton payload on its way to Mars. If the Mars mission plan is designed around a concept of using existing propulsion technology to send a few such discrete payload to the Red Planet, rather than waiting for the age when we can build gigantic Battlestar Gallactica spaceships at orbital spaceports, then conducting human Mars exploration in parallel with lunar operations becomes possible.
Furthermore, because orbital mechanics dictate that we can only launch to Mars every other year, this is the best way for us to proceed. A launch vehicle program costs almost as much to maintain as a force in being without doing anything as it does to conduct active flight operations. If we had a heavy lift launch system capable of six flights per year, and a well-designed Mars mission plan requiring 3 launches every two years, we would be well-advised to use the other nine launch options to support a robust program of lunar and near-Earth asteroid exploration, rather than waste our funds through inaction.
The American human spaceflight program is in very bad shape right now. It is operating without a coherent and rational goal, and unless such a goal is embraced and an intelligent plan set forth to achieve it, the drift and waste will only continue until the taxpayers, losing patience, put it out of its misery.
We must, and can, do better. We really can have a space program worthy of the American pioneer spirit. We don’t need to just keep going nowhere, or returning to places we explored a half century ago. We don’t need to disappoint yet another generation by failing to accept the challenge of attempting inspiring deeds. Instead of endlessly pretending that we are preparing to go somewhere, we can actually go, and become the first explorers, pioneers, and settlers of new worlds filled with wonders waiting to be discovered and history waiting to be made. Instead of accepting the view of our detractors that we no longer have what it takes, we can once again step forth boldly and astonish the world with what free people can do.
To make America’s space program great again, we need to make it brave again. The entire inner solar system in now within our reach. We should seize the time.
Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society and the author of The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.