Halfway to Nowhere


SLS: going somewhere, doing something. ‘Merica. Credit: NASA

The great Robert Heinlein famously postulated that Low Earth Orbit is “halfway to anywhere,” meaning that it takes almost as much energy to send a spacecraft to its final destination (say, Mars) as it did to put that spacecraft into Earth orbit in the first place. In some cases it actually requires less energy.

After years of development and who knows how many billions spent, NASA’s Congressionally-mandated Space Launch System is nowhere closer to having a clear mission than it is to actually launching. Literally, a “rocket to nowhere.”

So we have a massive booster launching a stupidly expensive spacecraft with no clear destination. There’s talk about a circumlunar flight, maybe a jaunt out to EML-2 or a near-Earth asteroid – they’ll figure that out later since the first manned flight won’t happen until at least 2020. NASA expects they can only afford to do that once a year. Maybe two. Again, later. Because reasons.

Does this make any sense (excluding those politicians preserving jobs in their districts)?

It occurred to me that if Congress is going to insist on pursuing this boondoggle, then for goodness’ sake let’s make it worthwhile. This is the part where things turn crazy, because it would require a leader who isn’t afraid to set audacious goals and corral the resources to see them through.

For all the talk about NASA’s #JourneyToMars, it is literally nothing but a PR hashtag campaign timed to glom onto The Martian‘s success. While an immensely satisfying movie for space nerds, I expect more from our nation’s space program than providing expert technical assistance to Hollywood.

So let’s go to Mars. For real.

Over Christmas 1968, Apollo 8 flew into lunar orbit and essentially settled our “space race” with the Russians. After that, the landing was just icing on the cake (okay, it wasn’t that simple but work with me here).

What most people don’t appreciate is the sheer audacity of Apollo 8. It was perhaps the greatest “stretch goal” NASA ever went for: under pressure from multiple directions (notably progress on the Soviet N1 booster and problems with the LM), they swapped the mission schedule and decided the first manned flight of the Apollo/Saturn V would go all the way to the Moon. In six months.

Understand they did this without dragging the LM along, so no “lifeboat” option existed. If there were some kind of catastrophic malfunction (as eventually happened on Apollo 13), the crew would die. If the SM’s main engine failed to reignite, they would be stranded in lunar orbit. If their trajectory wasn’t accurate enough, the craft could’ve crashed into the surface. Or the command module could’ve skipped off of our atmosphere during re-entry and out into space.

In the face of all that risk, NASA decided they had the ability to try, so why the hell not? It would either work, or it wouldn’t. Time to nut up or shut up.

What does this have to do with going to Mars? Well, sometimes attitude is everything. Those of you who follow this stuff closely no doubt remember Inspiration Mars, a recent effort to put together a privately-funded manned flyby of Mars. The timing presents a unique opportunity as free-return trajectories are possible in 2018 and 2021.

Credit: Inspiration Mars Foundation

2018 is clearly shot. If they haven’t settled on mission architecture by now, it’s not going to happen. But 2021 seems eminently possible, especially considering that the later window presents a juicy opportunity: a gravity-assist flyby of Venus on the way out, shortening the mission time and providing the chance for flybys of both planets.

This ought to be a no-brainer. Putting together even a bare-bones Mars flyby is nowhere near simple, but we’re building the hardware anyway (though at a glacial pace). If we committed to this in the next year, launching in five ought to be possible. That is, if we still care about doing audacious things just for the pure hell of it.

If we’re going to spend the money, then let’s make it worth the effort. Blaze the trail, prove the concept, show that we’re still the big dogs when it counts. Take the lessons learned from it, then pull the plug on the whole unaffordable boondoggle and redirect NASA to meaningful R&D that would enable sustainable travel into the solar system.

A pipe dream, but a nice one.


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