Forward to Mars: The Case For Privatizing A Mars Mission

Civilizations that do not expand do not live. While history has provided examples of countries or cultures that have been destroyed by lack of expansion, in our day and age, all of humanity is now at risk. Renowned physicist Neal deGrasse Nyson has spent time and effort attempting to warn our population of the dangers that we now face. These dangers come from humanity, such as pollution and warfare, as well as natural disasters such as asteroid collisions and mass flooding (Tyson, 2007). Even though these threats seem unavoidable, for the first time in history, we can actually do something to protect all ourselves by expanding throughout our solar system.

Our technology is now developed far enough that within at least the next century, manned exploration missions to other planets will become a reality. The best target? Our neighboring planet: Mars. However, a debate now exists over the plan for a Mars exploration mission. Specifically, scientists and policy makers are now debating whether a government agency or a private agency should be the ones responsible for completing the missions. This is one of the most important debates of our time, because unlike petty government debates, in this situation humanity itself is at risk. When the evidence is weighed and considered, the private industry is best suited for manned exploration missions due to its ability to allocate all resources to a project and ability to have the long term vision of space exploration.

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SAFETY AND EXPERIENCE

Between government and the private industry, the government has the advantage of experience. Since 1958 the main source of American government space industry has been NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) (NASA, 2005). Although NASA is not the only government organization running a space program, for simplicity’s sake, the individual plights of organizations such as the European ESA and Russian FKA will not be discussed. The lessons learned from NASA can be generally applied to any government space agency. Vasilii Moroz and C.W. Syndey, two leading experts of Mars, note that throughout NASA history, the organization has spearheaded the development of moon exploration, reusable spacecraft, in-orbit habitation, and satellite communications. Specifically, the administration has sent dozens of missions to Mars over the past decades (Moroz, Syndey 1992). The success of past space missions gives NASA a large amount of credibility when it comes to safely conducting manned exploration throughout our solar system. Not only have they collected a vast body of information from robotic Mars missions, they have also gained much experience with creating habitable spacecraft for astronauts.

Safety and habitability are large concerns when discussing any manned mission to Mars. Michael Bouchey of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute concedes that in terms of safety, NASA has a large advantage over the private space industry for the following reasons. (Bouchey, 2014) Unlike the moon missions and missions to the International Space Station where astronauts usually are only in orbit for a few weeks, future astronauts would be travelling for months in interplanetary space. Michio Kaku, popular physicist and futurist, warns that long-term exposure to radiation and prolonged weightlessness can wreak havoc upon astronaut’s bodies, with potentially lethal results (Kaku, 2008). Although NASA does not have any firsthand experience with protecting crews for Mars missions, they have had a long track record of developing safe environments for the astronauts in orbit. Because of this experience, a NASA mission would be able to build on pre-existing infrastructure and research. Their considerable experience would enable them to adapt pre-existing technologies to perform within mission parameters. In the case that new life support technologies would need to be developed, NASA would be able to draw upon an experienced corps of engineers that are already in place. This would put them in a better place to design and test any new technologies.

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FUNDING AND POLITICS

Another key advantage of NASA is their theoretically unlimited amount of funds. Any manned mission to Mars would be extremely expensive. Conservative estimates quoted by Robert Zubrin in his award-winning book “A Case for Mars” project a cost of $30 billion, while other estimates have cited a $450 billion price tag for a manned mission. (Zubrin, 1996). The high range of these estimates is nearly impossible to reach for any start-up private space firm. Given the right circumstances, such an exorbitant amount of money would not be a problem for NASA. Since NASA is a government agency, its funds are allocated by budgets that are voted on by the United States Congress and House of Representatives. The funding of NASA draws from the vast financial strength of the United States of America, which even after economic downturns remains one of the most powerful industrialized nations of the world. In the event that the United States government saw it fit to allocate most of its resources to the space program, the funds would be nearly unlimited. Therefore, a big advantage of NASA is that they can theoretically access the economic strength of the United States, if Congress and the House of Representatives saw it fit to give them that sort of funding.

However, the fact that NASA is tied to the government is also one of its greatest disadvantages. Being intricately tied to the operations of the United States government often puts NASA in the midst of shifting political allegiances and an unstable political climate. Due to the fact that all of their funding is approved by Congress, NASA often has to work around unfavorable political situations instead of focusing purely on its long-term goals. Frequently, promising NASA programs are shut down purely because a budget was not approved or the political scene shifted in an unfavorable direction.

A worst case scenario occurred in October and November of 2013. During these months, Congress was debating over a proposed budget for the following fiscal year. Due to a climate of hyper partisanship, the Democrats and the Republicans were unable to come to an agreement about how government agencies should be funded. The lack of cooperation lead to a rare occurrence where the law of the United States forced the government to be shut down for a given time as a resolution was reached about the budget. During this time, the government was no longer operating. That included NASA. Greg Autry, a business professor at University of Southern California summarizes these few weeks in October of 2013 as a time when “the future was put on hold.” (Autry, 2013) During this period, the NASA website had a banner explaining the situation and informing the public that all launches and programs were currently stalled until the Democrats and Republicans could reach some sort of agreement. This situation demonstrated a worst case scenario that could impede the operations of NASA.

The danger of relying on an agency tied into the operations of the government has become very real and very clear during this time. Fortunately, the government shutdown only lasted a few weeks and NASA was not attempting to launch any critical missions. If the government shuts down for reasons not related to the space industry, NASA also becomes in-operational. The future of human space travel can be halted by petty government disputes. A private company, however, is only affected by such situations inasmuch as they rely on government services to help run their company. They can more effectively weather shifting political climates.

A main concern in the arguments presented above is funding. Although NASA may have theoretically unlimited resources, in practice they do not always get the funds necessary. Often times this means that projects are either cut or not attempted due to government interference. Throughout the history of NASA, their projects have usually been some of the first on the government budgetary chopping block. Because the government needs to allocate money to provide for national defense, social programs, or education; it has time and again taken that money from scientific endeavors. A recent example of this mentality and procedure was the ill-fated Constellation program that was being developed by NASA throughout the 2000’s.

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THE CONSTELLATION

By the turn of the century, NASA became aware that its aging fleet of Space Shuttles would need to be replaced to keep space travel moving forward. NASA set about designing a replacement for the Space Shuttle named Constellation. Constellation was meant to represent a new generation of spacecraft that would be able to help NASA meet its goals of making a manned mission to Mars, returning to the moon and developing an effective heavy lifting craft to make supply runs to the International Space Station.

Throughout its development, Constellation was hampered by a lack of funding as allocated by Congress. A key goal of the Constellation project was the development of next generation technologies that would not only be used on Constellation, but also other space faring vehicles that would be developed by NASA. However, a lack of funding kept engineers from having adequate money to actually develop these technologies. Because the new material was not being funded, it was not developed by project schedules.

After years of setbacks, Constellation ended up being behind schedule and over budget. In 2010, Congress officially cancelled Constellation, mainly because the new technologies that were supposed to be developed were so hopelessly behind schedule. Journalist and astrobiologist Keith Cowing notes that it seemed useless to the government to keep pouring money into the program (Cowing, 2010). Herein lays the paradox. The reason that NASA was unable to develop the technology was because they were not adequately funded by Congress. When the project fell behind schedule (due mostly to a lack of funding), Congress cancelled Constellation because the new technologies were not being developed fast enough.

Soon after the cancellation of Constellation, NASA retired its Space Shuttles, leaving America with no heavy lift options to the International Space Station. Currently, NASA astronauts have to collaborate with the Russian space agency (the FKA) in order to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. Although this is not a worst case scenario, NASA is now at the mercy of the FKA.

Not only has the cancellation of Constellation caused a practical inconvenience to NASA, it also set back America back technologically. NASA is now forced to use Russian Soyuz capsules instead of creating an innovative new design. America has lost the lead in space innovation. Only now is Constellation’s replacement program, Orion, completing enough prototype testing to be considered as the next NASA heavy lifter.

The story of Constellation demonstrates some of the dangers of having a space program tied in so closely to the government. Chad Anderson, a writer and employee of the English private space company Space Angels Network, notes that NASA technologies often receive budgetary cuts, which makes NASA less likely to undertake risky and groundbreaking missions such as a manned mission to Mars (Anderson, 2013). Instead, they focus more on “safe” projects such as the International Space Station, robotic exploration or deep space observation. These examples represent important projects, but show NASA’s unwillingness to risk the money on challenging and dangerous missions such as a Mars mission. On the other hand, a private space company whose sole purpose is exploration would be more likely to take risks. They do not have to worry about a higher governmental power cutting their project, and as discussed above, they can plan farther ahead for long term projects.

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ELECTION CYCLES AND LONG TERM GOALS

Another significant advantage of a private space company is that it can plan for goals decades in advance, not just four years. Because NASA is at the mercy of politicians, it is also at the mercy of the United States four-year election cycle. The senators and representatives who decide the budget of NASA have to be concerned about reelection in this cycle. They are aware that every four years, they may be held responsible to their districts for all the funds that they allocated and the decisions that they made. A senator or representative who seeks reelection may be only concerned with how his campaign will run within four years and will be less willing to take financial risks with tax payer funding. Besides the danger of hesitant elected officials, NASA also has to worry about whether their supporters in Congress will get reelected during the next election cycle, or if they will be replaced by politicians who may be less inclined to support a space program.

This situation builds an environment that is not conducive to long-term space programs.  Often times, a space program takes decades to develop and requires constant, large amounts of funding to develop necessary technologies. These technologies may not pay off for a decades. Senators and representatives who are concerned with a reelection every four years tend to be less willing to support programs that may not pay off in time to help them win political support. This trend can cause the cancellation of promising programs, as will be demonstrated later.

Private companies, on the other hand, can start programs that may not come to fruition for decades because they are not trapped within this four year election cycle. They can set long term plans that will pay off in the future. It is unclear how soon key technologies for a manned Mars mission will be developed. Therefore it is important to give the bulk of the effort to organizations that can set long term goals which are not tied into the cycle of election and reelection.

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THE POLITICS OF SPACE

A final advantage of private industry is that they can keep space free from political allegiances. Since the development of satellites and the exploration of space began, policy makers from all major countries have made an effort to keep space neutral. Early treaties mainly dealt with the demilitarization of space. Although current treaties have worked to make space neutral, modern space lawmakers and theorists such as Jason Berry of the University of Manchester are becoming increasingly concerned over the “terrestrial geography” of space (Berry, 2012). The question being posed is: Who owns what part of space? As humanity begins to expand throughout our solar system this becomes a real concern. For example, if a NASA mission established a colony on Mars, would the United States have the right to lay claim to that part of the planet? This concern may not become an issue until centuries in the future, but it is important to set the groundwork now so this will not be a problem later.

By allowing private companies to expand out into the solar system, the political allegiances of the astronauts will not be a huge problem. Future astronauts will not have to worry about crossing into space or colonies owned by other governments. Rather they can focus on exploratory and colonization efforts without being influenced by the changing flow of politics back on Earth because they are not an extension of their home countries. This neutrality will make any potential conflicts unlikely.

CONCLUSION

The evidences presented above prove that private space industries are better suited for manned Mars exploration efforts. Ultimately, we have seen in recent years that space exploration is not a priority of congress. The United States has enough problems, domestic and foreign, that it cannot allocate the needed time and money to develop a manned Mars exploration mission. On the other hand, private space companies can spend all of their time and energy in developing the necessary technologies to explore our cosmic neighbors, free from the interference of government policy makers.

The real key is that private industry has the long term goal in sight. They do not have to worry about reelection, party politics or a budget crisis. Rather, they can focus on the survival of the human race. Manned exploration will not come soon, the technology may very well not occur for the next hundred years. However, by turning over the bulk of the exploratory effort to private industries we can lay the groundwork for future missions that will not only make sure the happiness and well-being of our children and grandchildren but also the continued to survival of humanity as we take our place among the stars.

 

FURTHER READING

Anderson, C. (2013). Rethinking public–private space travel. Space Policy, volume 29(4), 266-271 Retrived from      http://www.sciencedirect.com.byui.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/S0265964613000799

Autry, G. (2013, October). Huston we have a market: privatizing space launches pays off big. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2013/10/02/houston-we-have-a-market-privatizing-space-launches-pays-off-big/

Berry, J. (2012). State, capital and spaceships, a terrestrial geography of space tourism. Geoform, volume 43(1), 25-34. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com.byui.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/S0016718511001424

Bouchey, M. (2014). Redefining safety in commercial space: Understanding debates over the safety of private human spaceflight initiatives in the United States. Space Policy Online from                 http://www.sciencedirect.com.byui.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/S0265964614000083

Cowing, K. (2010). Budget summary: Constellation is cancelled outright. NASA Watch.  from http://nasawatch.com/archives/2010/02/budget-summary.html

Kaku, M. (2008). Physics of the impossible. New York: Anchor Books.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, United States Government http://history.nasa.gov/factsheet.htm

Snyder, C.W. & Moroz, V.I. (1992). Mars. Arizona: University of Arizona Press.

Tyson, N. D. (2007). Death by black hole. New York, N.Y: W.W. Norton & Company.

Zubrin, R. (1996). The case for Mars. New York: The Free Press.

 

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