8 1 3 4 5 6 9Mars Society Switzerland
The flight of Elon Musk's Falcon 9 around the Earth, opens up a new era in Space exploration.
Feasibility of inhabited flights to Mars
On December 8, 2010 a private U.S. company, Space-X, put into orbit, at a 250 km altitude, a satellite which can carry a payload of 10 tons (including, with some upgrading, a crew of 7) and which landed a capsule, in good condition.
Credit image: NASA/Space.com
Space X, founded in 2002, is owned by Elon Musk, former owner and developer of Paypal (which he sold the same year). The cost of the launcher and its capsule is only $ 200 million and launch has been successful on the second attempt. This is a significant event. Indeed, for the first time, a private company accessed to real Space (nothing to do with the short incursions to the 100 km altitude of Richard Branson’s Virgin Space Ship). Space-X thus joined the club of entities capable of the same performance (NASA, Russia, ESA, Japan, China and India). It proved that this is not an area restricted to the States and it did it at an incredibly low price. Indeed when the "COTS" (acronym for "Commercial Orbital Transportation Services”) challenge was launched by NASA in May 2006 (by previous administrator, Mike Griffin) and confirmed between June 2007 and February 2008 (by the new one, Charles Bolden ), it seemed impossible to win this award so quickly and for such a price. Before the Augustine Committee, Elon Musk said he might produce a Heavy Launcher Vehicle (able to put a 100 ton load on Low Earth Orbit-“LEO”) for $ 2.5 billion only and the Committee responded that it was not possible for less than 35 billion (NB: To understand the extrapolation, please bear in mind that, in terms of propulsion using the current chemical propellants, one can use similar kind of rockets to launch 10 tons or launch 100 tons, it just costs 10 times more). Elon Musk's credibility is now well established and an objection based on price for a manned mission bound to Mars, is to be seriously reconsidered. For this undertaking, which entails putting in low Earth orbit precisely some 100 tons, NASA was considering costs significantly higher than for the International Space Station (about 200 billion dollars?), The president of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin, said that he could achieve the project, applying the "Mars Direct" architecture, for some $ 20 billion only. After Elon Musk’s feat, the real figure could be much closer to that of Zubrin (note, by the way, that Elon Musk has been a generous donor to the Mars Society). Beyond the acknowledgment of helplessness that this success is expressing (as it underlines the capacity and efficiency of the private sector and, conversely, the inefficiency of the public system) the new NASA management put in place by President Obama is still a winner. It bet that it would be cheaper to use the private sector than developing its own system and it has got more than it expected. This method could be applied to other projects but will the Administration do it? Will it, at last, decide to designate Mars as its target and will it do so with a realistic timetable (i.e. not half a century but 10 years)? Nothing is less certain, NASA being so conservative and shy. Unfortunately Europe will not show up to push the United States, asleep as it is within its multinational public crippling straitjacket. It seems that, on this side of the Atlantic, the goal is only to run a system that satisfies all members at a minimum level of cost, risk and interest. In contrast with the vivid demonstration of dynamism shown by Space-X, the 7th Space Meeting, which is the gathering of ESA and European Union member states, filed on November 25th a "resolution" absolutely appalling by its lack of vision and ambition:In terms of space exploration, the major project Europeans are to complete is the ExoMars mission, in 2016 and 2018, and they do not even plan do that alone as they would do so in cooperation with NASA. The resolution does not even mention the Mars sample return, mission (“iMARS”) which was previously initiated (in 2008) to be realized sometimes in the years 2020 and ... at a cost of about $ 8 billion (imagine what Elon Musk could do with that money!). The budget that European States are willing to spend on space exploration is limited and is certainly one reason for this lack of vision of the common space policy. But beyond that, it dramatically lacks efficiency and ambition. Their "goal" for inhabited spaceflight is nothing else but keep on flying the ISS as long as possible beyond 2020, while wondering and asking member states, what may they might well do inside in terms of science (conf: call for ideas launched in October this year). Certainly there are opportunities for intelligent uses of the Station but these could be run as part of any exploration project and not simply continuing orbiting around Earth. Somehow ESA is in the position of an experienced skier who, applying the precautionary principle, keeps playing on a green slope, dreaming of the great outdoors accessible through some red track into which it would not dare entering. Always do what you can do. Otherwise, you would be frustrated. Noting the discrepancy between the resolution of November 25th and the dynamism of Space X, Europeans have every reason to feel frustrated. Pierre Brisson President of the Mars Society Switzerland
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