COMMENTARY | The National Research Council has issued a report that is highly critical of NASA’s space exploration program. It suggests that not only is NASA not spending enough money on the program but that it’s chosen precursor mission, the asteroid redirect mission, will not develop the technology necessary to eventually place astronauts on the Martian surface.
The NRC recommends that NASA’s budget be given a five percent increase per year for the foreseeable future to make up for the funding short fall. It also has devised several “pathway” scenarios that involve going back to the moon and/or visiting an asteroid in its “native orbit” as a way to prepare for a Mars expedition in the 2030s. It’s a rather conventional solution to the chronic problem the space agency has of an uncertain direction and insufficient funding. If the political class were to lend the idea its long term support, it might work.
On the other hand the country has seen proposals to go to Mars come and go since the Space Task Group first outlined such a mission in a report it issued in 1969, months after the Apollo moon landing. That mission would have taken place in the 1980s. Subsequent proposals, particularly by two presidents named Bush, have also failed to get off the ground.
Perhaps it is time for a little creativity. The Apollo moon landing worked, in part, because it was part of a space race with the Soviet Union. Perhaps it is time for another space race, but with a major difference. The race to Mars would be conducted by private groups, supported and partly financed by NASA and perhaps other national space agencies.
It is an old idea, first advanced by Mars visionary Robert Zubrin and supported by former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. In essence a prize of $20 billion would be awarded to the first private group to land a crew of four or more people on Mars, conduct an exploration campaign, and then return them safely to Earth. The real world models for this effort would be the original X Prize competition that led to the first private flight of SpaceShipOne in a suborbital flight in 2004. The Google Lunar X Prize that has a number of private groups racing to land a rover on the lunar surface by the end of 2015 is also an example.
Of course a human expedition to Mars would be a formidable challenge for any private group, even though Elon Musk of SpaceX has announced plans for a venture to the Red Planet. However NASA and perhaps international partners could sweeten the deal using another current model, the commercial crew program that is developing private spacecraft, including the recently unveiled SpaceX Dragon V2, to service the International Space Station.
Toward that end NASA and its partners would prescribe a number of preset milestones on the way to sending humans to Mars and award money to every private group in the race that achieves it. Such milestones might include developing an advanced propulsion system that would get humans to Mars quicker, building and testing a life support system that would sustain people on Mars and during the voyages to and from the Red Planet, and so on.
NASA and other government space agencies would provide technical and other support to the participants, including access to facilities and the loan of experts in space flight, The participants in the race to Mars would be free to raise money in the private sector, through crowdfunding, marketing and media, licensing of new technology developed for the race, and by other means. In this way not only will the participants’ technical expertise be tested, but also their business acumen.
In this way an effort to go to Mars would be sweetened by a spirit of competition. That and the presumed ability of private groups to think outside the box, unencumbered by government rules and bureaucracy, may well get one or more expeditions to Mars cheaper and perhaps sooner than is currently envisioned.