Mars Society Switzerland
by Pierre Brisson This article has been published (in French) in Le Temps dated April 28th 2010. In a much waited for speech pronounced on April 15th in Florida, at the Kennedy Space Center, the President of the United States, eventually detailed his exploration policy and straightened up the most negative features of the disappointing plan presented by NASA last February 2nd. Supporters of “destination Mars” remain nevertheless unsatisfied. As far as destination is concerned. As expected, the President chose the “flexible path” option proposed by the Augustine Committee. In opposition to the choice made by President Bush in 2004 to go back to the Moon and built a permanent base there, he clearly decided that Americans should do something else (“we already went there”). This being said, even though Mars is now named as the destination, US spaceships will aim at it only after numerous prerequisites are fulfilled and intermediate steps are passed. According to a logical progressive process in terms of energetic needs and time, these steps should be: orbiting the Moon, visiting one of the Lagrange points, visiting a geocruiser asteroid, orbiting Mars and, at last, landing on Mars. We are far from the simplicity and robustness of the Mars Direct concept of Robert Zubrin, even though we now have a concrete program. One must wonder about the need of these steps, beginning with the need of sending a crew around the moon. This crew will do nothing else that mere observation robots could do and the proof of the feasibility of the journey, more than fifty years after Apollo 8, will be like opening a door left ajar. The mission to one of the Lagrange points will be seen as a mission to nowhere. The idea to set up a fuel storage there, looks rather weird (what interest would there be to go so far for refueling and how will we protect the storage tanks from leaking?). Furthermore the various destinations beyond Low Earth Orbit (“LEO”) implying returning to Earth without stopping over on Mars, put forward the problem of a longer exposure to radiations and microgravity. In effect, Mars and its atmosphere provide a natural shelter against radiations and a relief against microgravity which makes a mission there much less hazardous. The only intermediate step which would be worthwhile in terms of technological progress and knowledge, would be visiting a geocruiser. Unfortunately this mission will be definitely more risky than a trip to Mars in terms of radiations and microgravity (as said above) and in terms of sheltering in case the mission is aborted. As far as programmatic content is concerned. There is nothing to expect from preliminary research on the heavy launcher. The Americans have already all the needed technologies in hands and in books for its development: The Saturn V rocket built in 1967 which was used for the Apollo and Skylab programs, is a perfect model for that. Technological research would be warranted in the field of space propulsion (i.e. after the launch and once in space) but no hint is made to further research on either nuclear propulsion or high power electric propulsion. The new vision includes building a lighter version of the Orion crew vehicle which will be used as a “lifeboat” from the ISS. Planning to take advantage of the past development is undoubtedly positive. Unfortunately this crew vehicle, bare naked compared to what was originally designed, will be the only element saved from these last years of hard work and 9 billion dollars spent for the Constellation program. Furthermore its mere lifeboat function could last for a long time to the detriment of other more interesting uses (interplanetary vessel) because it seems as if the ISS will be kept alive at arm length at least until 2020. Out of any other consideration, this will heavily weigh over time and prevent from undertaking any other important program. The whole system being developed lacks essential elements (even some already studied on a theoretical level) for any mission beyond LEO, in particular with regards to the interplanetary crew vehicle and artificial gravity. The crew vehicle will be needed for any far away mission and to begin with, for the geocruiser mission. Indeed, it could be developed from the ISS experience but this would have to be decided and it should be intrinsically linked to the designing of an artificial gravity system by way of centrifugal force. Eventually working seriously on this system will be unavoidable if we want the astronauts to reach Mars in good health and operational. Generaly speaking, in most areas, either for lack of knowledge of technical realities, or in order to legitimate the carrying forward of deadlines, preparatory works are either poorly focused or earmarked in relation to necessities which are grossly overstated. Yet, mastering of chemical propulsion, interplanetary flights and long stays in space, demonstrated by the Shuttle and the other launchers, interplanetary spaceships and international space stations, should enable us to go forward in a much more relevant and faster way. As far as schedules are concerned . The strongest objection made to the NASA plan of February the 2nd, was the lack of any indication about schedules allowing giving some consistency to an ambition which, without them, especially considering the program of unspecified technological research prerequisites put forward, risks to turn into mere wishful thinking. One could think that President Obama understood the point since he proposed stages for the realization of his program: heavy launcher in 2015, geocruiser mission in 2025, Martian orbiting in 2035. It might look as if this schedule tells wrong people who feared to see NASA sink in a technological program boneless for lacking of any concrete destination. However we still worry. In effect, experience teaches us that diluting endeavors over time, make programs brittle, all the more when they suppose continual political support. This overstretching makes them surely more costly and less productive. A dynamic program would not imply more money! On the contrary, it would allow bypassing preparatory stages which will, eventually, prove to be useless, and also reducing the number of intermediate steps and consequently the quantity and costs of equipments and operations associated to these steps. We expect more of you, Mr President ! The President wanted to show that he was aware of and understanding the criticisms generated by the presentation of February 2nd, which was, to say the least, ill prepared and careless. These protests, had obviously reached an extraordinary high level, from Congressmen of both sides worried about America giving up the leadership in space exploration and about the immediate consequences on employment, as well from historical figures as from societies dedicated to space exploration (including ours). Mr Obama strongly pronounced himself in favour of the venture and we should not put in doubt his good will (“space programs are not a luxury for the United States, they are a necessity”). One can always hope that it was premature, in the current economic context, to declare clearly an ambition up to the level of the stake. However, as we have seen, the proposed policy suffers from useless intricacies and serious gaps. Wishing that the improvement of the surrounding economic conditions would ease up, our objective for the years to come, will be to act in such a way as to focus this program on the essential and within tighter delays. Pierre Brisson Mars Society Switzerland President.
President Obama straightens his space exploration policy but fails to meet expectation.
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