Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Stuck in the Past

By David G. Young

Cocoa, Florida, December 23, 2014 --  

NASA's Orion capsule offers the chance to send man back into deep space. Now man just needs somewhere affordable to go.

The highlight of the tour of NASA's Kennedy Space Center is a visit to the Apollo/Saturn V Center.  The building houses a full-size construction of spare parts of the rocket that went to the moon, over twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.  This massive machine is incredibly impressive. But the museum's exhibits, which includes a mockup of a 60s-technology control room that launched the rocket, look a little long in the tooth after 45 years since man first walked on the moon. NASA tour operators sound more than a little bit defensive when they insist that the Kennedy Space Center isn't just about the past -- it's about the future.

That future is based on the Orion capsule, a prototype spacecraft that completed its first unmanned flight into space this month and returned to the Kennedy Space Center last week.  If all goes according to plan, Orion will send live astronauts beyond low earth orbit for the first time in over 40 years, first to an undecided nearby destination like an asteroid or the moon and, eventually, in the 2030s, on to Mars.

Trouble is, these plans are little more than dreams. While NASA's budgets support a few test flights of the Orion capsule that could potentially take astronauts beyond earth orbit, absolutely no money has been allocated for missions to actually go anywhere. The projected costs are so high that NASA and space enthusiasts don't even like to talk about them. Guesses about the costs of a manned Mars mission have reached $1 trillion, and even enthusiastic supporters can't come up with fantasy scenarios to bring the cost below $100 billion(1). Compare this to the $17 billion annual budget of NASA(2), which largely goes to pay for maintenance of its existing facilities and the salaries of its 18,000 employees. Good luck setting aside a chunk of that to save up for a Mars mission several decades in the future.

A mission to Mars is so expensive because of the enormous costs associated with transporting humans along with safety systems, enough food and fuel, and a rocket powerful enough to escape Mars' gravity to a planet that is many months away even at its closest approach. The technological advances in computers that make the Apollo launch control panels look so ridiculous have not much affected rocket science. Take a look at the Orion capsule and the proposed Space Launch System planned to send it into space, and it looks an awful lot like the technology used in the nearly 50-year-old Apollo program. The capsule is a similar size, shape and design to that of Apollo. The launch escape system and boosters use the same basic technology. Only the electronics look more advanced.

These similarities highlight an essential truth. While computer technology continues to undergo exponential growth and fuel revolutionary change, the same is not true with rocketry, which was largely mature by the time humans landed on the moon. Since then, only small evolutionary advances have been made.

What has changed since the 1970s is the willingness of Americans to spend a huge portion of their tax dollars sending a few lucky astronauts on extremely expensive rocket trips. With no Sputnik to scare Americans into a new space race, there simply is not political will to spend the $100 billion to $1 trillion needed to go to Mars. Ask any schoolboy if America should send a man to Mars and the answer will almost always be an enthusiastic "yes." Ask a retiree if he or she is willing to pay for one by giving up some Medicare or Social Security benefits, or a working parent if they will accept a tax increase, and you will undoubtedly hear a very different answer.

This is the reason that NASA boosters have proposed cheaper "interim" missions to the moon (been there, done that) or a nearby asteroid. The latter proposal is nothing more than a desperate attempt to find someplace affordable to go that doesn't make Orion look like a retread Apollo project. Either way, it's difficult to understand the usefulness of a mission to an asteroid if there is no political will to spend the money to eventually go to Mars. Perhaps supporters are hoping that a mission to a floating space rock will be exciting enough to change public opinion? Not likely.

The sad truth is that space technologies and NASA's Orion program are just like the Apollo program — stuck in the 1960s. The world has moved on since then. It's high time that NASA does, too.

Related Web Columns:

End the Gravy Train, July 26, 2011

The Cheapest Rocket, June 22, 2004

A Bloated Approach
The Real Reason to End the Shuttle Program
, May 13, 2003

An Acceptable Risk
The Oxymoron of Safe Space Travel
, February 4, 2003

An Astronomical Failure, October 31, 2000

The $50 Million Carnival Ride, October 6, 1998


1. National Geographic, A Mars Mission for Budget Travelers, April 21, 2014 2. NASA, FY 2015 President's Budget Request Summary, March 4, 2014