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Congressional Testimony Says NASA Has No Plan For the Journey To Mars ( 310

MarkWhittington writes: Testimony at a hearing before the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Space suggested that NASA's Journey to Mars lacks a plan to achieve the first human landing on the Red Planet, almost six years after President Obama announced the goal on April 15, 2010. Moreover, two of the three witnesses argued that a more realistic near term goal for the space agency would be a return to the moon. The moon is not only a scientifically interesting and potentially commercially profitable place to go but access to lunar water, which can be refined into rocket fuel, would make the Journey to Mars easier and cheaper.
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Congressional Testimony Says NASA Has No Plan For the Journey To Mars

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  • Common Sense (Score:2, Insightful)

    I've been saying this since the idea of going to Mars came up in the first place. Let's go back to the moon and figure out how to live there, before travelling an insane distance and strand someone on another planet, and leave them to die.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      before travelling an insane distance and strand someone on another planet, and leave them to die.

      Meh, just pack a few sacks of potatoes - he'll be fine!
    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Living on the moon isn't that interesting, because there is almost nothing useful up there except for solar energy. You have to take everything with you, the soil isn't good for growing stuff, there are few raw materials for you to use.

      The goal should be to become self sufficient on Mars. If you can do that, you can make real progress towards colonizing the solar system because you don't have to bring everything from earth.

      At most, you might go back to the moon to test some systems and perhaps establish a s

      • Moon colonization (Score:5, Interesting)

        by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @12:43PM (#51439541)

        Living on the moon isn't that interesting, because there is almost nothing useful up there except for solar energy.

        Think so? The moon has no atmosphere so it is potentially awesome for astronomy. The moon could provide a useful base for deep space exploration as its gravity well is much smaller than Earth's. It could be a source of raw materials. It may be possible to produce propellant on the moon. The moon consists of more than moon dust and reflected sunlight.

        The goal should be to become self sufficient on Mars.

        A fine goal but how do you get there? It's not hard to make a reasonable argument that colonizing the moon (which is much closer) could be a useful stepping stone to the goal of Mars and beyond. Putting an entire infrastructure to support human habitation on another planet is a monumental undertaking and we don't even have a fraction of a percent of the technology needed to do that. The Moon could be very useful in development of some of that technology.

        If you can do that, you can make real progress towards colonizing the solar system because you don't have to bring everything from earth.

        I could make the same argument regarding moon colonization.

      • The goal should be to become self sufficient on Mars

        Assemble a building the astronauts can remove their helmet in, and sleep overnight in, prepare meals, have a place to shit and shower.

        Come back a while later and do that again.

        If you can't do that on the Moon, you have no hope in hell of doing it on Mars the first time.

        There is no much foundation technology required it isn't funny. Trying it out for the first time on Mars would be reckless and stupid.

        Don't get me wrong, I'd love for NASA to say "screw you

    • Re:Common Sense (Score:4, Informative)

      by werepants ( 1912634 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @01:24PM (#51439859)

      It's only common sense to someone who doesn't understand orbital mechanics very well. Mars is many times farther in terms of distance, but in terms of Delta-V it isn't much more difficult to reach. What's more, resources on Mars are much easier to take advantage of because we can pull them right out of the atmosphere, rather than having to process regolith or solid ice.

      So, stopping at the moon as a cost-saving measure is completely misguided. There's also not a lot of scientific interest there. If Mars is where we want to be, the most efficient thing to do is go straight there. Building a base on the moon to go to Mars is like building an underwater city to cross the Atlantic.

  • Of course there is no plan, because it isn't realistic to have humans living on Mars. The radiation and differences in gravity will see to that. People always say: "oh we will *just* build underground". With what? An excavator you bought at the Home Depot on Mars? It isn't realistic to ever have humans living on Mars. You can't even have people living permanently on the Moon for the same reason. Gravity. Radiation.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Do it the old fashioned way. Drill holes, fill the holes with small charge, blast. Move forward and repeat. No reason it couldn't work.
      • Explosive allows to make the stuff "shovel-able", breaking big chunk into smaller one. You still need the excavator to shovel the stuff out. You would also need something like it on the moon, but it is not that far away.
      • Drill holes with the drill and charges you brought along. And blow it up. Then you have a hole. Everyone go into the hole. Boy, sure are hungry. Do they deliver pizza to the holes on Mars? No wait, you just grow plants. And everyone eats plants. You just need to grow plants. It is so easy! Too bad you are dead from the radiation before you even get to the blowing up part.
      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        So your goal is to loosen up the ground with a couple (dozen? hundred?) tonnes of mining explosives? Okay, what's the next step?

    • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @10:48AM (#51438649) Homepage

      Honestly, if they can't tackle the problem of putting someone on the Moon for a week, or a month (or at all) ... they have no way in hell of trying to solve some of the problems with going to Mars.

      Permanently living on the Moon isn't even a pipe dream, but the only way to start solving some of these problems is to actually try to do it there ... put up a structure and go back to it hasn't been achieved, establishing a "permanent" settlement anywhere? They don't have anything remotely resembling that.

      Trying to even get people to Mars would be suicide at this point, let alone trying to have them live there. At least not without developing and proving an awful lot of technology under realistic conditions.

      • by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @11:10AM (#51438781)

        Actually in a lot of ways Mars is much easier. Plenty of water and CO2 to support growth. Sand that has been worn smooth by millenia of dust storms so that it won't destroy your equipment and especially air seals. A day length within the range of human adaptablity.

        You do need a slightly larger rocket to get stuff there, but for unmanned supply ships it really is only a small difference - the Moon is already most of the way out of the Earth's gravity well, and once you're out of the gravity well you can get anywhere in the solar system essentially for free, if you're willing to take your time. Even a relatively fast Hohmann transfer orbit isn't *that* much more energetically demanding. Yes, it needs a larger rocket, but we've got SpaceX already dedicated to having the necessary rockets within a decade. It's only the manned ships that need to cross the distance in a hurry for radiation reasons, and I'm reasonably confident that Musk isn't just blowing smoke when he says his planned rockets will be up to the job.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          The perchlorates in that dust will destroy your seals, and kill you. So will the peroxides, which even fall as "snow" when it's cold enough.
        • Actually in a lot of ways Mars is much easier

          You mean other than having the technology to get them there alive, build any settlements, feed them once they're there, and keep them alive long enough to get them back?

          Sorry, but there is a stunning lack of proven technology which would be required to pull this off.

          Acting like this is just a trivial extension of stuff people are already doing is pretty much wishful thinking.

          Bigger rockets don't even begin to cover it.

          • Not easy, just easier than the Moon. We don't quite have the rockets to credibly do either yet, but once we do the only difference is transportation times, and that's really only relevant to the ships actually carrying colonists.

    • Nobody knows if gravity will actually be a significant problem for Mars or even the moon. We know it's an issue for micro-gravity (though we've got people living in it over a year anyway), we don't know about 1/3 or 1/6 gravity.

      • Indeed. Moreover, we can reasonably extrapolate that those issues, such as muscle degradation from lack of regular exertion, and skeletal degradation from lack of impact stresses from walking, should be dramatically reduced if not eliminated by the presence of *any* significant gravity.

    • The radiation and differences in gravity will see to that. People always say: "oh we will *just* build underground". With what?

      Initially, the way we have always done it: in caves. There are plenty of caves on Mars. The difference in gravity is a red herring.

      You can't even have people living permanently on the Moon for the same reason. Gravity. Radiation.

      People can never drive cars, the speed would kill them! People can never fly! People can never...! Cut the Luddite crap.

      • Exactly. We just find a cave and live in it. On Mars. No problem. They did it on on the Discovery Channel show...cut the scifi crap.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Not just nothing on Mars, but people fail to understand the size of the Solar System.

    • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @12:25PM (#51439383)

      -1 Stupid. Why is this modded "Insightful"? It's dumb.

      It's absolutely realistic to have humans living on Mars, or the Moon. It's easy: you build underground.

      The problem is, you have to have a lot of technology and capabilities in place to do that. You'll need excavators, and you're not going to do that with one little mission. That's why we need to go back to the Moon, and start working on our construction capabilities there first, before heading all the way to Mars. The Moon is only a few days away, so it's a great place to get started working on this stuff, plus there's still plenty of scientifically interesting stuff to do there. Don't forget how many people would pay a handsome sum to take a vacation on the Moon. Once we have the capabilities of building underground habitats on the Moon, building large ships in space for interplanetary missions, etc., **then** we can head over to Mars and start building there.

      As for gravity, we don't know what the long-term effects of 1/3g or 1/6g are on humans. It's surely not as bad as zero-g, which the guys in the ISS put up with. Building on the Moon will help us find this out, and in a safe manner since it's only a few days' journey back home to Earth. Having people spend a month or two at a time on the Moon is probably fairly safe, once we deal with the radiation problem. Mars is more of a problem because it's so far away, so you can't just come home if the low gravity is affecting you. However, it's also double the gravity of the Moon, so it likely won't be such a problem.

      Anyway, these things are all challenges which can be overcome, in time. Which is why your post is stupid, because you assert that these challenges can **never** be overcome.

  • Lost ability? (Score:5, Informative)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @10:39AM (#51438591) Homepage

    It seems like the technical ability to go to the moon has more or less been lost, and then someone wants them to leapfrog to Mars.

    NASA spent a bunch of years putting stuff exclusively into low Earth orbit (which was always a criticism of the Shuttle), and then subsequently lost the ability to do that ... and to add insult to injury they need to rent lift capacity from Russia, or buy rocket engines from them.

    How anybody could expect them to go to Mars when they've not demonstrated the ability to go to the moon in 43 years?

    Of course they don't have a plan ... they have neither the budget for it, nor the technology at the moment.

    • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @11:08AM (#51438765) Journal

      The technical ability to go to the moon, or even low earth orbit, is at our finger tips. The practical ability to do so today does not exist in the NASA storehouses.

      The mathematics required to go to the moon and return was at least half the battle. Anyone who has had to slog through Battin knows that pain. But we are, to a certain extent, beyond that now. Our ability to simulate orbital mechanics and transfers far exceeds anything imaginable back in the last 50s and early 60s. NASA didn't not land rockets back on earth like SpaceX because they didn't think it would be more convenient, they didn't do it because the entire computational infrastructure that existed couldn't handle the mechanics.

      Just about everything that was done has been advanced since the Apollo era. Will we need to re-invent some things? Sure, but in many cases the materials, technologies, and capabilities we have today would make all but the lessons learned books* obsolete for new construction.

      We haven't really "lost" anything but the will. And by will, I mean solid, long-term funding commitments.

      *yes - they do exist. They have been written for many missions and you can browse through them at several NASA libraries.

    • "How anybody could expect them to go to Mars when they've not demonstrated the ability to go to the moon in 43 years?"

      NASA already demonstrated that *with a ton of money* and *limited political interference* can go from basically zero to the Moon in about ten years... on technology from the sixties.

      It seems not such a big leap to think that NASA could send people to Mars in a decade on XXI century technology. The highlights above, on the other hand, are what seem to be lacking.

    • by sycodon ( 149926 )

      subsequently lost the ability to do that

      Well, had it taken away from them.

    • The ability hasn't been lost, only the will to do so. We proved we could do it, and the thrill is gone. Meanwhile robots have advanced to the point that they can do basic science and surveying much cheaper than humans. At this point there's just not much point in sending humans to another world unless we plan to build a permanent base.

    • by sbaker ( 47485 )

      The problem isn't "going to the moon" - the problem is staying there long enough to do something useful while you're there. What was done in the original Moon missions could be done much more efficiently with robots.

      The things we need people for is much more long-term - and the Apollo technology couldn't do that.

      I don't buy the argument that the moon is a good stepping stone to Mars - the difficulty of creating and maintaining all the infrastructure to manufacture rocket fuel and get it up into lunar orbit

  • Venus (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Thanshin ( 1188877 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @10:43AM (#51438627)

    Why not Venus? []

    • Re:Venus (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Rei ( 128717 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @11:09AM (#51438773) Homepage

      I'm a big fan of Venus as a destination. Scientifically, it makes a lot more sense than Mars - we know far less about it, and there's a real benefit to the latency reduction provided by humans concerning Venus surface rovers (which can only tolerate the surface conditions for relatively short periods before they need to float back up) than to Mars rovers, which are fine just sitting around and letting their batteries charge while waiting for more instructions. A thorough Venus survey program requires "diving" rovers based on phase-change balloons to explore the surface, and an aerial base station to hold all of the power generation, coolant handling, sample analysis, high gain radio communication, etc hardware that you don't want to put into a vehicle repeatedly traveling into such hellish conditions. The easiest way to get a lifting gas on Venus is to split CO2 into CO and O2 (the same technology being tested on the Mars 2020 rover); O2 is a lifting gas there. And there's already N2 in the atmosphere. So if you have an N2/O2 envelope lofting your base station, you pretty much already have livable space. Combine this with how Venus is easy to get to with frequent launch windows, easy aerocapture/aerobraking, far lower dangerous ionizing radiation, dramatically more solar radiation, nearly Earthlike gravity, etc, and how the atmosphere at altitude is so earthlike that a person might even be able to step outside with nothing more than a facemask on**... it's very easy to make the case for Venus rather than Mars.

      ** - The known SOx and CO levels are dangerous to human eyes, but it's not certain that they rise to the point that they'd be dangerous to bare or lightly shielded skin for reasonable exposure durations. Either way, no pressure suit, cooling, or heating would be required.

      I think the main thing Mars has going for it over Venus is "romance" (ironically). If people go to another planet, they want to have their feet on the ground, touching alien soil, hiking in alien canyons, etc, rather than just floating in clouds above a hellscape. Then again, I'm sure Venus has its own beauty to it.

      • The best you could do at Venus is a space station.

        The pressure and heat at the surface is so great that we can't keep robotic landers alive for more than minutes.

        Venus also has no magnetic shield so radiation will be worst than the moon.

        • by kwoff ( 516741 )
 [] (will Mars or Venus kill you first)
        • Moon has no magnetic field either.
          And Venus has a suer thick atmosphere, so basically no radiation at all at heights that are interesting.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          Not a space station. A cloud station. I'm not sure how you missed that:

          "and an aerial base"
          " hardware that you don't want to put into a vehicle repeatedly traveling into such hellish conditions."
          "an N2/O2 envelope lofting your base station"
          "the atmosphere at altitude is so earthlike"
          "just floating in clouds above a hellscape

          The Venusian cloudtops between about 51 and 55km are the most Earthlike place in the solar system outside of Earth. They're not hellish like the surface. There's bad "smog" and no ox

    • Because colonizing Venus would require one of three things:
      - Massive terraforming efforts well beyond our current technological abilities, and likely to take millenia even after we start.
      - Giant floating cities capable of surviving sporadic acid baths and the strong chaotic winds of the upper atmosphere, also probably beyond our current technology
      - Bases capable of surviving high acidity and temperatures that melt lead, while shedding enough heat to avoid cooking the inhabitants. Lowered from orbit because

    • Why not Venus?

      Why not Zoidberg?

  • I know many are saying we should go back to the moon first... and we probably will, if anywhere. It makes sense for all the reasons the other posters listed. But, NASA isn't 100% responsible for calling the shots... and as James Cook said, "Never underestimate the incompetence of government."
  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @11:14AM (#51438817) Journal

    Imagine a project at work that will take a year. You've been commissioned to do a study and you present it with the schematics. Good, now go do it.

    Oh, I can only guarantee you that I will give you time to work on it for the next month, and in a month I'll tell you if you have time. I'll need you to develop a complete spec and fixed manpower pricing. But you won't have anyone to work on that, because I need all your people to be working on my other pet project.

    Fast forward 6 months:

    So why haven't you worked on this? Oh, and by the way, your boss is about to retire. His replacement almost certainly doesn't care about this project.

    We'll call you in in 6 more months to yell at you for not being complete.

  • I had a look at the Mars-One website today. According to their roadmap, we'll be seeing astronauts entering the habitat simulations sometime this year.

    Who needs NASA anyway?


  • Enough of Mars! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by k6mfw ( 1182893 ) on Thursday February 04, 2016 @01:45PM (#51440049)

    Here we go again... NASA is doomed to keep a single course to Mars.

    I think only reason they talk about Mars is if talk about the Moon, then need to put up some real money now to build transfer stage and lander. But talk about Mars because you can always defer those costs of hardware 20 years into the future for some other smucks to deal with. Also why colonize Mars? I don't see a huge land rush to Gobi Desert even though that place is 1000 times easier to settle. Reason is that place is a terrible place to live, we only fantasize about Mars because it is so far away.

    Matula posted this on NASAwatch:

    I blame most of the destination argument on the creation of the Mars underground in the 1980's. Prior to that NASA was focused on using the Shuttle for industrialization in LEO with projects like demonstrating the repair and return of satellites, building structural items in orbit, tethers, etc., all logical starting points for building a Cislunar industrial capability that would have given us the Solar System. NASA didn't even have plans to send robots to Mars. By advocating that we needed to skip the Moon and go rushing off to Mars they started this entire useless destination debate that has paralyzed space policy ever since.

    Although their arguments made no rational or economic sense, falling back on outdated ideas like "manifest destiny" and painting Mars like a second Earth, they struck some cord among a very vocal hard core group that has shouted down any rational space strategy ever since. We see it now with Senators force feeding the SLS with money it doesn't need while starving commercial crew because the SLS would, in theory, be able to take astronauts to Mars. As a result the ISS is only one Soyuz failure away from being abandoned.

    We need to give Mars a rest and once again spend the limited budget on building capabilities in space, space tugs, orbital refueling, lunar LOX, that would serve for going to all the interesting destinations beyond Earth, not keep wasting money on plans to go to a single one that is already well mapped and explored.

    end quote

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel