In the midst of a series of technical glitches that delayed the planned launch of the Orion capsule by a Delta IV rocket on Thursday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is reported to have told NBC News, "We're now on the way to Mars, and that's what's most important."
Uh, no. First of all, we're not anywhere close to being on our way to Mars, or even the Moon, for that matter. Orion is a marvelous spacecraft, but it can't go anywhere on its own; it needs a massive rocket to launch it into space, and that rocket -- the proposed Space Launch System (SLS) -- isn't expected to be ready for an initial manned test launch with Orion until at least 2021, and probably a few years after that. The Delta IV is merely a place card until the human-rated SLS is ready.
While it will allow NASA to test the unmanned Orion in space and prepare it to eventually be mated with the SLS, the Delta IV is not the designated Mars rocket; the SLS is... and the SLS remains a big question mark -- both in terms of its development and funding and its political support.
Without the SLS, Orion is like a Cadillac without wheels.
So, yeah, OK, Orion may be a starting point. But it's a bit of a stretch to say we're on our way to Mars. By that logic, the United States has been on its way to Mars for the past quarter of a century. In 1989 President George H. W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), which called for building Space Station Freedom (now the International Space Station, or ISS) and then sending astronauts back to the Moon to establish a permanent human presence there by 2010, followed by a manned mission to Mars sometime in the 2020s. The space station and the Moon base were envisioned as being stepping stones to Mars.
The first ISS module was launched into orbit in 1998, so you could say we've been on our way to Mars since 1998. The official final assembly of the ISS was completed in 2011, so perhaps it's only been since 2011 that we've been on our way. Then, of course, the Clinton administration abandoned the SEI in 1992, so maybe we've never really been on our way.
Well, maybe we got on our way when President George W. Bush laid out his Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in 2004. Nothing particularly original about the VSE. President Bush simply dusted off what his father had proposed and gave it a new acronym. The plan called for completing the ISS and retiring the Space Shuttle by 2010, developing a next-generation rocket called Ares and crew capsule called Orion (yep, same one), returning humans to the Moon by 2020, and then pushing on to Mars by around 2030.
So based on the VSE, we've been on our way to Mars since 2011, when the ISS was done and Space Shuttle Atlantis flew its last mission. Then again, the Obama administration did away with the VSE when it cancelled the Constellation program in 2010. Constellation was the manifestation of the VSE's goals. So... not on our way after all. I get dizzy just trying to keep it all straight.
Now, Mr. Bolden comes along and assures us that we are, in fact, on our way to Mars (by around 2035), and that that's what's most important. You can see why I'm having my doubts. But it's not just the chaotic, disjointed nature of the process that bothers me; it's that NASA has not even been able to jumpstart an engaging, broad conversation about why we should land people on Mars in the first place. This has been true for every presidential administration and Congress that has pushed the idea.
The idea that we should go to Mars because... it's there. Hmm, nah. Because it will inspire our youth to become more interested in math and science? Boring. Restore our "urge to want to dream about tomorrow" (got that one from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson) and galvanize our nation? Nuh-uh. Ensure U.S. leadership in space? Lame. Mr. Bolden's "survival of the human race." Too dramatic, too dire. Mr. Bolden has been testing this theme lately to see how it plays. He probably picked it up from SpaceX's Elon Musk, who for at least a couple of years now has been talking about the dangers of us Earthlings becoming extinct unless we move on to other planets.
But scaring the hell out of people is a poor replacement for inspiring them. Better to keep it cheerful. Which is why I much prefer Mr. Musk's call for "establishing a dual-planet civilization" -- a phrase I heard him utter two or three years ago.
More recently, Mr. Musk has been interviewed numerous times and spoken enthusiastically about colonizing Mars and building an "Earth-to-Mars economy." He's talked about getting to Mars within 10 years rather than 20. He's stated that one of his goals is to take a million people there.
Here's what he said about that in an article by Ross Andersen in the magazine Aeon:
There needs to be an intersection of the set of people who wish to go, and the set of people who can afford to go. And that intersection of sets has to be enough to establish a self-sustaining civilization. My rough guess is that for a half-million dollars, there are enough people that could afford to go and would want to go. But it's not going to be a vacation jaunt. It's going to be saving up all your money and selling all your stuff, like when people moved to the early American colonies.
Bravado? Richard Branson's got nothing on Musk. It's the kind of talk that sounds crazy, the kind of talk that scientists and engineers shy away from. But it's precisely the kind of talk that gets people talking and ultimately plants the seeds of inspiration -- and inspiration is often followed by public support, which is critical for long-term political backing and huge gobs of tax dollars. This is something that NASA has not been able to manage since the Apollo era, which is why any successful effort to go to Mars and do something worthwhile there that the average person can understand and value requires a serious partnership with private industry... and not merely as contractors.
NASA may have the technical capacity to send human missions to Mars, but it lacks so many other things -- intangible things -- to sustain such an effort that only entrepreneurs seem able to provide.
I love the following words from the iconic 1997 Apple commercial written by Rob Siltanen:
Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.
They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. ... They push the human race forward. ...
While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.