NASA's Mars Capsule Will Never Land on Mars
The Orion space capsule that launched earlier today has been under development by NASA since the mid-2000s. But, watching it splash down in the Pacific ocean four hours later, you'd be forgiven for thinking of the 1970s. The capsule, which by some reliable estimates cost over $10 billion, didn’t accomplish anything that wasn’t somewhat routine for NASA in the era of the Apollo moon landings.
NASA, however, is encouraging a very different view. Rather than admit Orion's many shortcomings, it has boldly promoted the mission as the first step in America’s journey to Mars -- or, as NASA tweets it, America's #JourneyToMars.
It's laudable, of course, that a perpetually under-funded government agency -- one that hasn’t sent a crewed mission beyond low-Earth orbit in forty-two years -- is able to muster this sort of long-term optimism. But optimism alone won’t send a jumbo-sized space capsule to Mars. You need money, and lots of it: a recent National Research Council study looked at several mission pathways to Mars, including Orion, and saw no possibility that any mission could be accomplished for less than hundreds of billions of dollars. In contrast, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) expects to spend $22 billion on Orion and the Space Launch System rocket by 2021 (according to the Government Accountability Office, a true accounting of Orion’s costs has not been provided by NASA). There's no reason to believe that greater volumes of money will ever materialize. NASA, in other words, intends on spending vast sums of money on a Mars capsule that will not be going to Mars.
How did NASA end up in this awkward and expensive situation? The Orion capsule dates to the second Bush administration’s Constellation program, designed to return Americans to the moon. In 2010, President Barack Obama canceled the program, famously justifying the act in part by saying “we’ve been there before.” He then reallocated some of the money to NASA partnerships with civilian space companies like SpaceX for the purpose of developing new vehicles, including “space taxis.” But Congress, keen to preserve jobs associated with Constellation, resuscitated parts of it, including the Orion capsule.
Political meddling in NASA’s mission priorities is nothing new. Orion, however, is a particularly egregious example because Congress funded it despite the fact that NASA canceled its original mission of reaching the moon, leaving the agency scrambling to find another use for it. For the moment, it’s currently scheduled for two test flights (the next is scheduled for 2018) and a controversial, by no means assured, visit to an asteroid in 2021. Orion's trip to Mars, targeted (not scheduled) for the 2030s, is an entirely unfunded aspiration, not a realistic destination.
And even if there was a mission and date certain for a Mars mission, there’s no reason to believe that Orion could fly it. The capsule lacks the habitation module that crew members would require for a long journey to Mars, and the lander needed to set them down on its surface. Both of those projects would cost tens of billions of dollars to fund, years to build and, in all likelihood, would be canceled by a cost-conscious president or Congress before they ever made it to the launch pad.
Is there a right way for Americans to chart a course to Mars? Many in the space science community would prefer that NASA cancel its human spaceflight program altogether and shift the money to its rightfully lauded science and robotic exploration programs such as the Mars rovers and the Cassini probe that’s orbited Saturn for a decade. However, even if Congress were willing to allow such a radical maneuver (it won’t, due to the jobs that those programs provide to Congressional districts and states represented by powerful members), the United States would be making a grave mistake in abrogating its role as the world’s leading spacefaring nation to the EU, Russia, and China (which has been quickly gaining ground).
The better option would be to kill Orion now, and use the money to support NASA’s successful partnerships with civilian space companies like SpaceX. Already, Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew -- the two programs that NASA undertook to deliver cargo and people to the International Space Station -- have proven that market incentives can help create rockets and spacecraft for a fraction of the price needed to develop them in-house. Even better, from a long-term standpoint, there’s evidence that young outer space-minded engineering talent is opting for work in the private sector over NASA. That talent would benefit from exposure to NASA’s deep experience and expertise.
Of course, there are risks in NASA’s partnerships, as demonstrated by the explosion of an International Space Station-bound Orbital Sciences rocket last month. But space will always be dangerous, no matter who is flying -- a fact that NASA knows better than any organization on the planet. So long as there are partners willing to take the risks to go deeper into space – and Elon Musk offers one very determined example -- NASA should help them get to the launch pad.
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Adam Minter at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Cameron Abadi at email@example.com