Humans On Mars: NASA on the Defensive

6 November 2000

By Leonard David, Senior Space Writer
and Andrew Bridges, Pasadena Bureau Chief

Humans are landing on Mars all the time in Hollywood movies, with even more scheduled to do so this month. But when will astronauts really go to Mars? To hear NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin tell it, really soon.

"We're going to be in space forever with people first circling this globe, and then we're going on to Mars, back to the Moon, and [on to] bases on asteroids," Goldin said Tuesday, on the occasion of the launch of the first full-time crew to the International Space Station.

Robots, not astronauts

But NASA's latest plans to explore Mars, unveiled just last week, tell a different story.

"This program is not driven by human exploration," said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science, in presenting the American space agency's next decade of Martian explorers -- 100-percent robotic, the lot of them.

The revised plan, prompted by the loss of a $300 million pair of probes last year, left pro-human exploration backers disappointed.

Poor man's Mars

"This is a poor man's Mars program. We are not a poor country. We can do a lot better than this," said Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, based in Indian Hills, Colorado. A strident proponent of a humans-on-Mars initiative, Zubrin called the robotic missions fine -- "but they don't go far enough."

"If we're serious about doing science on Mars, let alone settlement, we have to send people," Zubrin said. "This plan does not take any significant steps in that direction."

Louis Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society, the Pasadena, California-based space exploration advocacy group, echoed Zubrin's criticism, saying the revised program showed no connection to either human missions or even a permanent robotic presence on Mars.

"That's clearly absent, no one mentions it and the sequence does not allow for that," Friedman said. "It's not taking the program to its logical conclusion."

Paving the way

NASA has kicked around the idea of astronauts strutting about on Mars for decades, at times more seriously than at others. A 1989 study, prepared for President Bush, pegged the cost of such a multi-year mission at nearly half a trillion dollars, promptly cooling enthusiasm for the idea.

But NASA-supported scientists, under the aegis of its Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) enterprise, have been plugging away on a suite of instruments that would enable a crewed mission to travel to Mars and live there safely for an extended period of time.

Scott Hubbard, NASA's Mars program director, said the HEDS payloads and other technologies, including the ability to land a spacecraft on Mars with pinpoint precision, would help get humans to Mars.

"I feel like we do pave the way," Hubbard said of the revised Mars plan. "All of this leads up to it. It's maybe more connected than [Friedman] realizes."

HEDS down, for now

The various HEDS instruments, originally slated to travel in batches to Mars in 2001 and 2003, would do everything from produce breathable oxygen from the thin, carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere to assess the potential threat of dust and radiation to astronauts on the planet's surface.

However, the 2001 lander mission was scrapped and in 2003 NASA elected to send a twin-rover mission that will not include the HEDS payloads. That means most will have to wait until 2007 to hitch a ride to Mars. (The 2001 orbiter will carry one of the original HEDS payloads.)

"We're enthusiastic about the chance to redefine our instruments, but seven years is a long time to wait to see them on Mars," said Peter Smith, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Smith had hoped his experiment, designed to measure dust devils, would travel to the Red Planet in 2003.

Show Mars the money

The wait to see humans on Mars will take even longer. Nor will NASA have to grapple with just technology and science to do so -- funding may represent an even bigger hurdle.

"To make a commitment to humans on Mars is something that the administration and Congress would have to do," NASA's Hubbard said.

Former Congressman Robert Walker, who once headed the powerful space and aeronautics subcommittee in the House of Representatives, said don't look to Congress to shell out the dough required to plop people on Mars.

"I don't think I would want to look at any scheme that depended upon Congress to get me the money. You won't find Congress receptive to $20 billion, $30 billion, whatever the figure is," said Walker, speaking at a space tourism workshop last June.

Rather, Walker -- a science and technology advisor on Gov. George W. Bush's presidential bid -- said a humans-to-Mars enterprise needs a little Red Planet politics in the private sector. Firms involved in carrying out such a Mars project could receive tax-breaks to spark interest, he said.

"How interested would Microsoft or General Motors become if they were told, 'If you sponsor a trip to the Moon or a mission to Mars, the government will give you 50 years of tax-free status for the entire company?' They would go subcontracting out with all the people that NASA now subcontracts with in order to do those missions," Walker said.

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