An artist’s depiction of a team of astronauts performing work on a space station while orbiting above the surface of Mars. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. (Shutterstock/Marc Ward)
A noted rocket scientist and author believes private space companies run by billionaire entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos will probably make it to Mars before NASA does.
“Unless NASA stops looking for excuses and diversionary activities and decides to focus its efforts on getting people to Mars, it is very probable that several others will beat it to Mars,” Dr. Robert Zubrin, who helped design plans for NASA’s manned mission to Mars and wrote the “The Case For Mars,” told The Daily Caller News Foundation
NASA plans to put humans on Mars by 2033 at the earliest, but only after building a giant station on Earth’s moon. Musk’s company SpaceX, on the other hand, may launch a manned Mars mission as early as 2024, and Bezos’s Blue Origin may not be far behind.
Musk has firm plans to land an unmanned Red Dragon spacecraft on Mars by 2020 with a followup mission planned for 2022.
NASA will spend time and money building a moon base to act as a refueling stations for a Mars mission. NASA also plans a “tollgate” for its Mars mission, which will consist of a science research module, a power source and an airlock for visiting vehicles. The gate will be used to test systems used to send astronauts to Mars.
Zubrin thinks plans for a “lunar orbit tollgate” will divert resources away from more productive missions, like landing on Mars.
“The lunar orbit tollgate has no utility to sending humans to either the Moon or Mars,” Zubrin said “It is a tollgate in space, demanding a great deal of money before it allows us to go further. It will waste tens of billions of dollars and a decade of time, risk so discrediting NASA to the point where the public loses patience and puts an end to its human spaceflight program altogether.”
“And yes, it will cost more than a humans to Mars program would cost if it were done in the most efficient way possible,” he said.
NASA’s planned lunar base would have at least some utility as a scientific outpost and refueling depot, Zubrin noted in a recent National Review piece. Building an orbital space station, on the other hand, wouldn’t be useful for refueling a Mars bound craft.
Zubrin suspects NASA’s real goal for the lunar gate is to justify spending billions of dollars on a rocket and capsule program.
“If they were looking to send humans to Mars, they would not build the lunar orbit tollgate,” Zubrin said.
“Instead they would start by using SLS (or Falcon Heavy) to send large payloads to Mars, thereby mastering the art of landing large payloads on the Red Planet, and building up infrastructure on the Martian surface in advance of the first piloted mission,” he said. “They could send armies of rovers in such landers, exploring for life and resources, and making many great scientific discoveries while they are at it. But they are not thinking that way.”
Zubrin’s “Mars Direct” plan for a manned mission to Mars would cost an estimated $55 billion dollars over 10 years, which could be done with NASA’s existing budget. Other NASA plans for a manned Mars mission were estimated to cost between $230 billion and $400 billion over 20 to 30 years.
Private companies could do it even cheaper. Zubrin suggested NASA use a fixed-price contract to get to Mars and save taxpayer dollars.
“I think a private mission could be done for under $10 billion,” Zubrin said.
“If NASA were to embrace an efficient fixed-price program to send humans to Mars, Musk and Bezos could profit by performing that program at a cost to the taxpayers an order of magnitude less than otherwise possible,” Zubrin said.
One of the most profitable resources Mars could generate would be new ideas and inventions, according to Zubrin.
“A Mars settlement will be composed of a group of extremely driven technically adept people, faced with many challenges and free to innovate in novel ways to solve them,” Zubrin said. “Such a colony would be a pressure-cooker for invention, and could potentially be investable on that basis.”
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