Why a manned mission to Mars is highly unlikely

From the recent movie "The Martian". Image credit: 20th Century Fox. Please click on the image for full-size version (opens in new tab / window).

From the recent movie “The Martian”. Image credit: 20th Century Fox. Please click on the image for full-size version (opens in new tab / window).

The discovery of flowing water on Mars, along with the theatrical release of the movie “The Martian“, caused a wave of renewed enthusiasm and hope for a manned mission to the red planet. But I think this discovery is actually more likely to put paid to any prospect of manned exploration of the planet.

On 28 September 2015, NASA confirmed what had been known among scientists for about forty years now, i.e. that liquid water flows on Mars. The surface of the red planet’s north pole contains ice made up of water by 70% and with a total volume of 1.6 cubic kilometers, with about the same volume being contained in the south pole. To give you a little perspective, Greenland’s ice cap contains 2.8 cubic kilometers of ice.

So no, that’s not really news, not by a long shot. Many researchers believe that the northern plains of Mars were covered by an ocean whose depth was some hundred meters, perhaps the same size as the arctic ocean. The findings of the various rovers sent by the US to Mars, and especially the abundance of deuterium, tend to support the hypothesis that, in its ancient years, Mars had water in abundance. Of course, the existence of liquid water on today’s Mars makes it more likely for some indigenous form(s) of life to exist on the planet. The probes that have explored the planet so far (and still explore it) have proven it is not exactly as hostile to life as we once thought.

All right, then. Now, the proven existence of water, the increased likelihood of the existence of life on Mars, and the increased interest, due to NASA’s internet-centred PR and the hype of “The Martian” could be considered by some as strong enough factors to bring the United States’ comatose manned space programme back to life, and possibly be the catalyst for the long- and oft-proposed manned mission to the red planet. Well… Not exactly, and I’ll explain why.

Vague promises, but, when money talks, bullshit walks

Already, in the summer of 2014, we had the National Research Council’s report “Pathways to Exploration – Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration“, which was a carefully considered, “balanced” report, neither outright stating that the United States shall be henceforth earthbound, nor announcing any ambitious, daring plans. After all, given that the United States, in step with the rest of the world, prefers to waste taxpayers’ money on bailing out irresponsible, profligant, outright criminal banksters instead of paving the road to a future, it makes far greater sense for the American manned spaceflight programme to remain in a vegetative state, setting vague targets, conveniently placed somewhere in the distant future, with an horizon of more than two decades. So, both Washington and NASA are happy: NASA’s bureaucracy survives, and Washington gets to sort-of maintain some kind of sense of national pride for the plebes; and, to top it all off, no government runs the risk to have to commit to something that will be done during its tenure.

The logo of the Constellation Programme, which has been killed off by US President Barack Obama.

The logo of the Constellation Programme, which has been killed off by US President Barack Obama (click on image for larger version – opens in new tab / window).

The Obama administration killed off the Constellation programme, which aimed for a return to the Moon by 2020, and the Space Shuttle. Since then, the US manned space programme is, as I said earlier, in a coma. NASA follows the “flexible path”, i.e. the development of technologies that might be useful for missions to a nearby asteroid or for missions whose destination lies in the vicinity of the Moon, but everything is written so that no American government will ever have to commit to any expenditure. This was confirmed on 8 October 2015, with the release of the report titled “NASA’s Journey to Mars – Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration“. All this “creative ambiguity” is because Washington is completely averse to the idea of spending the billions of dollars manned missions to the Moon, or to Mars, would require. Of course, they have already wasted a trillion dollars on the jalopy known as the F-35 Lightning II, and they keep on allowing the 1% to effectively not pay taxes, but these things are easier to sell to the voters, as jingoism and the idea that the rich deserve more than other human beings sound more “natural” to the plebes.

Of course, even Baldrick from Blackadder the Third can understand that, without a significant increase in NASA’s budget, the space agency is doomed to linger in our planet’s orbit, even when  (or, I should say, if) the Orion is finally built. The harsh, bitter truth is that a manned mission to Mars will cost more than what the entire International Space Station has cost so far; its realisation shall require years, if not decades, of hard, committed, continuous, dedicated work, while the risk of both failure and – yes – casualties is significant.

And this is where the public sentiment comes into play. How willing is the American (first and foremost) public to accept the idea that they could spend a few hundred billions of dollars on a project that might be riddled with problems and cost lives, and whose benefits are not easily understandable by the average taxpayer?  Yes, I mentioned that the US has already spent a trillion on a turd that can’t fly, can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t hold its own in a dogfight (the F-35) and whose software is riddled with bugs and horrible security holes, but hey, Faux News’ talking heads can easily tell the plebes it will eventually “kill bad guys”, and this is a benefit that everyone considers tangible. On the other hand, the scientific benefits and other from a manned space mission are not as “immediate”. Yes, I know the American and international public loves space, but in an anodyne, lazy way, i.e. with Facebook “likes” and following space exploration-related accounts on Twitter.

Let’s be blunt: A manned space programme is far from becoming reality, especially in our times that are saddled with geopolitical and financial instability. A manned spaceflight to Mars requires a very well-specified plan regarding the kind of rockets, spacecraft etc. will be needed. And it also requires an awful lot of money, to the tune of $400 billion, and I think this is a conservative estimate. Those who can read between the lines understand that NASA pretends it can send humans to Mars with its current budget. But with current funds, adjusting for inflation, the summer 2014 report concluded that, until 2040, NASA will get only $100 billion for Mars-related work. That’s peanuts.

So, what do we make of “The Martian”? Well, it was an OK movie, which certainly helped get the hopes of the Mars-loving community up. But, every two or three years we see the same movie in re-runs. The existence of water on Mars is announced, then we are reassured that manned missions to Mars are just around the corner, just wait and see – a rinse and repeat process for a crowd with a goldfish memory.

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