Why the moon and not Mars?

The U.S. is planning space missions heading back to the moon, although China is already on its way with its latest probes, preparing for manned missions of its own!  Can you guess where else they'll be before we are?  Mars!

It boggles the mind that the United States is targeting the moon again with Artemis, a mission they refer to as the "Twin Sister of Apollo."  NASA plans to collaborate with "our commercial and international partners and establish sustainable exploration by the end of the decade.  Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap — sending astronauts to Mars."

Why return to the moon when the very same mission can be done with Mars as the target planet, especially when sustaining a base on Mars will be significantly and technologically different?  Where is our spirit of exploration?

Mars Direct is a plan that is cost-effective and possible using current technology.  Martin Marietta engineers Robert Zubrin and David Baker originally wrote up the plan in 1990.  Following the plan, we could have Americans on Mars within 2–4 years.  The newest technology is all workable in various forms and simply has to be built for the specific purpose of a Mars mission.  In fact, we could have been on Mars for over a decade already.

The Mars Direct plan is well documented and published for all the world to see — there's even an audiobookThe Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must!  Unfortunately, our political agendas have prevented the plan from gaining any traction because it would change our overall national approach to space exploration from an expensive, contractor-rich, incremental effort to a less costly and more dynamic exponential program.  Obtaining the necessary funding would probably require canceling many current long-term NASA and other contractor projects and likely create significant churn in the personnel involved.  What member of Congress wants to see his state's ten-year project get canceled at the risk of new projects going elsewhere?  Typically for the modern U.S. government, bigger, slower, and more expensive is better!

At the same time, China does not have this type of political interference.  What the Chinese Communist Party wants, the Chinese Communist Party gets.  I'm sure the Mars Direct plan has already been translated into Mandarin and other languages required for China to understand and make the plan happen.  Given all of the technology they've stolen from everyone else across the planet, they may be able to make the trip relatively soon, too.  I will not be surprised when we receive an email from some Chinese crew on Mars saying, "Hello, and thank you for the great ideas!"

Mars Direct is a simple and redundantly safe system that requires Ares rockets that we can already produce.  A first rocket takes an unmanned Earth Return Vehicle to Mars with a supply of hydrogen used to power an onboard chemical plant and a small nuclear reactor.  The trip to Mars takes about six months.  Upon arrival, the automated systems initiate chemical reactions that combine the carried hydrogen with carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere to create the methane and oxygen needed to send the Earth Return Vehicle back to Earth.  This fuel also powers other equipment used on Mars, like a cool Mars buggy that allows the crew to explore distant locations from the landing site.  Generating this fuel takes about ten months.

About two years after the first launch, a second Ares rocket with the crew habitat takes the six-month trip to Mars.  This rocket carries four astronauts and is launched when the automated systems on the first ship indicate that it was successfully producing fuel for the return trip to Earth.  During the six-month trip, centrifugal artificial gravity is created by spinning the crew slowly around a central access point at the end of a tether.  At the other end of the tether is a spent rocket.  This spin creates 1 g of gravity and reduces the debilitating effects of space travel.

Upon reaching Mars, the crew vehicle lands close to the first Earth Return Vehicle, and the crew spends 18 months conducting scientific research — not just a few days collecting rocks, as we did with the moon.  They'll conduct various experiments useful for establishing a base on the planet.  To return, the crew uses the first Earth Return Vehicle, leaving the rest of the equipment for the next crew.  Follow-up missions occur at 2-year launch intervals, allowing the Earth Return Vehicle already on the planet to generate the fuel it needs to return home.

Because we currently have the technology, we can safely put humans on Mars for substantial amounts of research time in less than four years.  Of course, U.S. politics being what they are, we might make it to the moon in ten years.  The Chinese also know the Mars Direct plan, and they must be asking themselves what we in the U.S. are thinking by trying for only a handful of moon rocks — again.

Matt Rowe is a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran and an independent business management consultant.  He earned his MBA from the University of Notre Dame after graduating magna cum laude from Campbell University with a B.S. in government.  He has written feature articles for several national publications and professional journals.  His first novel, White Passage: Red Sun, is loosely based upon his experience in the "drug war" in Latin America.

Image: OSIRIS Mars true color by the European Space Agency.  CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.