I read in New Scientist recently that Dennis Tito, founder of the Inspiration Mars project, believes that their aim – to send a man and wife team to Mars and back – is no longer viable without NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).
Originally, Tito intended to make use of commercial space launch vehicles, but now doesn’t believe that to be feasible. Inspiration Mars will now work with NASA to develop and help fund the SLS instead. This is a clear departure from the organization’s earlier philosophy of completing the mission with no help from government sources.
There’s no doubt that developing a heavy launch rocket system is expensive. Estimates for the SLS are around $10 billion, not including an extra $6 billion for the Orion crew vehicle. This doesn’t compare well with commercial development estimates and is a significant drain on NASA, requiring cut backs in other programs to fund the SLS.
Mars Society founder, Robert Zubrin, has suggested that a suitable heavy-lift vehicle could be built for half that cost through private contracting. Meanwhile the much more capable SpaceX Falcon Heavy will provide higher performance and cheaper delivery of greater payloads, which raises the question as to why Tito isn’t signing up to invest in the SpaceX project? It also raises other questions, such as why is NASA investing so much in the SLS and also not collaborating more closely with SpaceX?
Certainly NASA has awarded contracts to SpaceX to assist in the development of the company’s systems, but these are relatively small and it would make more sense to co-sign the whole deal. At these estimated costs NASA could pay the whole bill and shell out just half of what it’s planning to spend, leaving a huge $5 billion to fund other programs. That’s before taking into account any possible investment by Inspiration Mars.
Of course the reason for this apparent insanity is simple; politics and rivalry. I’m sure that Dennis Tito doesn’t want to go “begging” to rival SpaceX for a ride to Mars. As for NASA, they have been committed to building the SLS by congressional edict – regardless of how little sense it makes.
Thinking more imaginatively; a Space Elevator would cost an estimated $5-20 billion and reduce launch costs even more massively. Not only that but it would be a much more environmentally responsible launch system that could support a wide variety of projects.
Let’s also put some context to these numbers. Once local mining company, Vale, is re-opening an old mine at the cost of $1bn. US banks made a record $154 billion in 2013, and over $40 billion in the final quarter alone, while in Canada they made $29 billion. All of this is dwarfed by US military spending which was over $680 billion in 2013 alone!
Think about this: for less than four percent (4%) of one year of US military spending, you could use a “belt and braces” approach and build the Falcon Heavy AND a space elevator. Imagine too how possible this kind of investment would be if we shunned the combined madness of 19th and 20th century jingoism and collaborated globally on space access by working with Europe, Africa, India, Japan and China?
Isn’t it time we left nationalism behind and stop trying to export it beyond the atmosphere?