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Is the case for Mars facing a crisis?

Robert Zubrin is the president of the Mars Society.
Robert Zubrin is the president of the Mars Society.
The Mars Society's Robert Zubrin holds out a fossil found during a Mars mission simulation conducted on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic in 2001.Mars Society

Will NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission, launched last month, mark another step toward sending humans to Mars —or one of the last steps for a long time in NASA's Mars exploration program? Rocket scientist Robert Zubrin, founder and president of the Mars Society, is increasingly worried that it's more like the end than the beginning.

"We're faced with the end of the program after this mission," Zubrin told me this week.

The future of Mars exploration will be Topic A when Zubrin and I sit down together Wednesday in the Second Life virtual world for this month's installment of "Virtually Speaking Science." The hourlong talk show, which will be webcast via BlogTalkRadio and archived on iTunes, begins at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT / SLT) in the MICA Small Auditorium in Second Life. Teleport in and join the live audience, listen in real time over the Web, or catch up with the podcast after the show.

Zubrin has been an outspoken advocate for human Mars exploration for a long time: He distilled his thinking about the potential scenario for Mars missions into a book titled "The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must."  His other books on that theme include "Entering Space,""Mars on Earth,""First Landing" and "How to Live on Mars." He's also delved into energy policy, and recently converted his 2007 Chevy Cobalt to run on methanol (which saves money and gives a boost to energy independence). In his next book, "Merchants of Despair," he takes on the critics of nuclear power, environmental activists and the advocates of population control.

This is clearly a guy who can handle controversy and make his point forcefully. But 15 years after "The Case for Mars" was written, have his efforts brought us any closer to that first landing on the Red Planet? In the late 1980s, some talked about sending astronauts to Mars within 25 years. Today, the Obama administration is talking about sending astronauts to Mars ... maybe within 25 years. And Zubrin sounds doubtful about even that timeframe.

In fact, Zubrin has deepening doubts about NASA's direction, particularly about the prospect of having no Mars missions on the books after the Maven orbiter launch in 2013. NASA hasn't yet fully committed itself to a joint ExoMars mission with the European Space Agency, and a U.S.-European-Russian meeting on the mission's future is scheduled for Wednesday.

Zubrin's concerns about the future of Mars exploration were the major theme of my pre-show interview with him this week. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

Cosmic Log: How do you see the Mars Science Laboratory mission fitting into the wider Mars exploration goals that NASA has, and that you think NASA should have?

Robert Zubrin: The Mars Science Lab is a great mission. One could argue that they shouldn't have bet so much on this mission. They could have gotten several missions for the money, and spread the risk around. But this is the one we've got, and if it succeeds, it's going to be a terrific science mission. They can look for methane, and they'll be able to distinguish between biogenic and non-biogenic methane by its isotopic composition. It'll study the topography, the mineralogy, the works. And it's powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, so it could last for years and years and keep going. The data will keep coming.

Robert Zubrin is the president of the Mars Society.

The problem is not this mission. The problem is, we're faced with the end of the program after this mission. OK, there's a little orbiter called Maven that's funded, but after that, they've canceled the program. The Obama administration has reneged on its agreement with the Europeans to do joint missions in 2016 and 2018 — which was supposed to be the preparation for Mars sample return.

What we're dealing with here is, No. 1, no missions in those years. No. 2, the collapse of an agreement with the Europeans. No. 3, probably a collapse of the European program, because these guys went and sold these missions to their political sponsors saying, 'Hey, we're going to do this together with NASA.' Now the politicians are going to turn around and tell the space officials, 'You lied to us.'

Q: There's talk about the Russians getting involved ...

A: Yeah, well, come on, you could do that. But every Russian mission to Mars has failed, without exception, including the one that failed last month. ...

This robotic Mars program has been a campaign, and it's been successful for that reason. This was a decision made in 1994, following the failure of Mars Observer. We were going to launch to Mars every two years, which is to say every launch opportunity, and we've been alternating rovers and orbiters. We were able to push right through the double failure in 1999 because we already had new things ready and up on deck. And beyond that, we were able to do combined operations: The orbiters could supply reconnaissance and communication links for the rovers, and the rovers could supply ground truth for the orbiters. It greatly enhances the power of orbiters and rovers.

If we wait until 2020 to resume operations, all the orbiters that are there now will have failed by then. We'll have lost this entire infrastructure, and we'll have to start from scratch. This is just an incredible thing. The Mars robotic program has been one of the most successful programs in NASA's history. To cut it off now is just insanity. Perhaps there's malice in this, to not cut the waste, but actually cut the parts that are delivering the goods.

I think it will be reversed. I don't think Congress will stand for it. For these two missions, we've got an offer on the table from the Europeans for a billion dollars cash to help fund it. The idea of walking away from this is just nuts. But I think it represents a degree of incompetence that perhaps can't be explained by incompetence.

They're spending billions of dollars a year to refurbish the shuttle launch pads even though there are no more shuttles. They've got $18 billion for the Space Launch System program when we could get a heavy-lift rocket by putting out a $5 billion fixed-price request for proposals. I don't agree with people who say we don't need heavy-lift. We absolutely do need heavy-lift. But SLS is not being funded to produce a heavy-lift vehicle. It's just being funded to distribute money.

[The Space Launch System is projected to cost $18 billion through 2017. That funding will support the development of a heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule for uncrewed testing. The test phase of the rocket, which is expected to lead to crewed flights in the 2020s, would cost billions more. The current SLS plan calls for NASA to spend $2 billion on launch pad construction at Kennedy Space Center over a multiyear time frame, but not billions per year.] 

Q: I would have thought you'd be in favor of any effort to build a big rocket that could send humans to Mars.

A: SLS is essentially the same as any number of earlier heavy-lift designs. It's very similar to the Ares rocket that we proposed in "The Case for Mars." That's not the issue. The first issue is, they're developing a heavy-lift vehicle in isolation from any program to use it. Which means it'll never actually get developed. The Saturn V program succeeded not because it was a Saturn V program, but because it was part of the Apollo program to get to the moon. It was part of a coherent set of hardware that was being developed together in order to accomplish the mission. It was mission-driven.

Since then, we've had any number of heavy-lift programs: Shuttle-C, ALS, NLS, Spacelifter, the Space Launch Initiative, the National Aero-Space Plane, the X-33 ... and none of them has produced a flying vehicle. That's because they were not mission-driven. Around the time it's proposed to get to Phase B, and the money starts getting serious, people say, "Why are we doing this? We don't need this. What's the mission?" So they fall apart.

The second problem is that it's not being pursued efficiently. Obama says that our objective is a near-Earth asteroid mission. Well, a mission to a near-Earth asteroid is not that hard. It requires a heavy-lift vehicle, an in-space habitation module and a re-entry capsule. If they were serious about this, they could put out the request for proposals for a heavy-lift rocket. They're already working on a capsule, and there's also SpaceX's Dragon. For the hab module, they could basically modify the design for a space station module, and there are also the Bigelow modules in parallel. You put those three things together, and you've got an asteroid mission. You could do that easily by 2016 ... if you were serious.

But instead they say we must have advanced propulsion, and they draw cartoons of gigantic interplanetary spaceships. It's vastly more expensive and calls for all kinds of engineering that we don't have. It's a way of postponing the asteroid mission until 2030 or so. It's a way to take an engineering project and turn it into a dream rather than a program.

What we have right now is a manned spaceflight program which is not going anywhere, and has no objective. For the next 10 years what are we going to get for the $10 billion a year we're spending? There'll be random technology programs, and they'll be flying people up and down to the International Space Station in order to get, what? Further evidence that human physiology deteriorates in zero gravity? As if we didn't already know that?

Q: So what's your prescription?

A: The prescription in all cases is to have a space program that's mission-driven. The reason why the robotic program has been so productive is because it's been mission-driven. They don't plan missions in order to use the maximum number of weird things. They do exactly the opposite: They design a mission to use the minimum number of novel and weird things. That's how the manned program has got to go. We need to continue with the robotic program. Frankly, it's the only thing that's moved us closer to Mars since I published "The Case for Mars" in 1996.

Now, I prefer that we simply bite the bullet, say the program should go to Mars, design the hardware to do that, build it and go. If you say you want to do something easier first, OK, the asteroid mission fits the bill. It would develop about half the hardware set you'd need to send humans to Mars. But that needs to be approached with the idea of actually accomplishing the mission.

Q: Some people would say that the launch system needs to be certified for human safety, "human-rated," and that's why it costs so much and takes so long to develop new hardware.

A: The booster should have the qualities needed to make it safe, and frankly, the vendor should not be paid for the booster launch if the launch fails. That's a pretty good guarantee that they're going to try to make it safe. But if you're going to spend $20 billion to develop a booster instead of $5 billion, and you're wasting $15 billion, don't tell me that you're trying to save lives when hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved by taking the $15 billion and using it for highway repairs, or child vaccinations, or body armor for the troops, or fire-escape inspections, or swimming lessons. The money spent on the space program can't be spent on other things. So the space program really has an obligation to get its mission done. To say we're going to take $18 billion a year and not get the mission done — that's not socially responsible.

Q: Speaking of missions, the Mars Society has just started up a new field season at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. How do Mars mission simulations like yours and the recently completed 520-day Mars simulation in Moscow fit into the grand plan of getting humans to the actual Red Planet?

A: Our first crew of the year is now in there, led by a French engineer, Charlotte Poupon. We'll have 11 crews who will take us all the way through April. This is the 11th field season for the MDRS. Over 600 people have been crew members at MDRS to date, and they've come from more than 30 different countries.

It's been very instructive. We've gotten hundreds of lessons, not all of which agree with each other, because that's how experience works. Nevertheless, there are hundreds of people now who have gotten some experience in what it would be like to try to do exploration under Mars mission constraints. Those people are going to go back to their various space agencies and universities and companies, and incorporate this experience into the technologies and plans that they design.

I think this is a much more useful exercise than Mars500. It's good that they did it. It's good that there are people out there thinking about Mars problems. But frankly, people have been locked up in rooms in Moscow many times in the past. The issue for a Mars mission is not the standing isolation. Anne Frank and her family in an attic in Amsterdam were far more isolated for two and a half years, under vastly more hostile conditions than any crew would face during a Mars mission. If you look at human history, any number of people, randomly chosen, whether they're refugees in hiding, prisoners, soldiers, merchant seamen, whalers, have withstood human-factor problems far more formidable than the crew would face during a trip to Mars.

The real issue is not how humans withstand isolation, it's how to plan the mission to get the maximum return from the exploration efforts. That's why our simulations are not based on isolation, but based on learning how to explore on Mars by doing it in the desert or in the Arctic. I'm hoping that NASA will copy us. I want our program to be made obsolete by people with greater resources picking up the ball and running with it. But until then, there's our program.

Q: And then there's your forthcoming book, "Merchants of Despair," which is totally different from what I expected. It's all about life on Earth, and you're probably going to stir a whole new kind of controversy.

A: Yeah, this is a book that's going to disturb a lot of people, because they're going to discover that a lot of ideas that are quite fashionable now have a horrendous heritage. They're not really new ideas. They've been paraded out before with the most disastrous consequences. Ultimately these ideas are all variants of Malthusianism, which basically says, "There isn't enough to go around, so some people are going to have to suffer, and therefore authorities are going to have to be empowered to enforce that." It's ultimately an argument for tyranny and justifying human oppression.

This was developed by Malthus originally to excuse the famines created by the British East India Company in India, and subsequently the famines in Ireland. It was the basis for the eugenics movement in Nazism, for the population-control movement, for the Limits to Growth movement — and for the global warming thing, which says, "Well, we're not actually running out of resources, but we've run out of the right to use resources." So the development of the Third World is to be precluded and the development of the advanced nations is to be limited. ....

The whole discussion of global warming is totally bizarre, because they're having all these arguments about whether it's getting colder or warmer, arguing about thermometer measurements, when it's very clear that increased CO2 content in the atmosphere accelerates plant growth. Furthermore, warming lengthens the growing season, and it increases rainfall. Global warming and CO2 increases are a cause for celebration.

Q: I'm sure the first question people are going to ask is, "What's a rocket scientist doing writing a book on these kinds of issues?"

A: Well, somebody's got to.

It's also this: Look, one might ask why John Holdren, Obama's science adviser, is basically trying to wreck the American space program. I think it's because the space program is the banner for proving that there are no limits to growth.

Here's what the space program is all about: It's to win the argument in favor of humanity. It's to prove that it's not the case that there's only so much to go around. It's not the case that human beings are just vermin who are consuming what's there, so they have to be limited, because if they're let loose they'll destroy everything. Rather, it's the case that resources — which is to say the possibilities of doing things — come about through human creativity. Resources are a product of human invention. Far from limiting human activity, you want to maximize freedom so as to maximize human creativity.

Here's a quote from John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich in "Global Ecology," the book they wrote together: "When a population of organisms grows in a finite environment, sooner or later it will encounter a resource limit. This phenomenon, described by ecologists as reaching the 'carrying capacity' of the environment, applies to bacteria on a culture dish, to fruit flies in a jar of agar, and to buffalo on a prairie. It must also apply to man on this finite planet."

If you want to be able to condemn humans to being nothing but the equivalent of bacteria in a culture dish, you must make the assertion that we are limited to a finite planet. If we are not limited to a finite planet, then it becomes clear that we are not bacteria in a culture dish. We are creators of our own future. That's what's ultimately at stake here.

Tune into BlogTalkRadio or drop into Second Life to join the "Virtually Speaking Science" conversation with Zubrin at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT / SLT) on Wednesday. And check out these previous podcasts from the "VSScience" show:

Many thanks to the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics for co-sponsoring Wednesday's Second Life talk at the MICA Small Auditorium at Stella Nova.

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding me to your Google+ circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.