45 Years Later


Forty five years after the Apollo 11 Moon landing, NASA is looking back, and NASA is looking ahead, but should it be looking itself in the mirror?

NASA is celebrating the 45th anniversary of the July 20, 1969 “Giant Leap” with a series of events over the week, as well it should. At the same time the agency is looking ahead to the future with a rosy assessment based on progress in the development of the Space Launch System and the Orion Crew Capsule.

NASA.gov’s lead article states in part:

“To help this nation send humans to deep space and return them to Earth safely, engineers across the country are developing a new space transportation capability, destined to travel far beyond our home planet. The Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket will be the most advanced space vehicles ever built. Together, they will take us farther into the solar system than humans have ever traveled. They are our spaceship to Mars and beyond.”

The rest of the piece goes on to elaborate on the agency’s planned Asteroid Redirect Mission scheduled to take place “in the 2020’s” and how it will tie in to very nebulous plans to journey to Mars sometime after that.

Compared to the definitive event of the first moon landing being celebrated this week, the lack of details, and in particular any planned hardware for actually landing on the Red Planet is striking.  It also raises important questions which cannot, and never would, be addressed by a feel-good press release but which demand answers nonetheless.

Despite being touted as “the most advanced space vehicles ever built” the SLS, built out of Shuttle components, is a system comprised of hardware which is nearly old as the moon landing itself, and in some cases, such as the RL-10 engine powering the upper stage of the Block 1 version, is even older.  While the current versions of heritage hardware comprising SLS/Orion have been updated, often many times, over the years, the claim is a highly questionable at best, asking by what standard “advanced” is being measured, other than cost.

Delta IV, Atlas V, Ariane V and Falcon 9 are all arguably more advanced than the SLS booster, while the composite hulled Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser spaceplane and the SpaceX Dragon v2 all eclipse the Orion crew capsule on multiple points.

The more important issue may be the last sentence, “They are our spaceship to Mars and beyond.”

Mars is problematical as it is, the “beyond” part is nearly inexplicable.

While the release goes on to point out that the Asteroid Redirect Mission will help develop high power solar electrical propulsion which could help send heavy payloads to Mars, notably absent is any mention of funding for in-space habitation modules, landing, ascent vehicles nor the nuclear propulsion elements called for in NASA’s own Design Reference Mission 5.0. And that is the real issue. Two separate studies, one in 2009 by the Augustine Commission, and one released this year by the National Research Council have both concluded that there is absolutely no way NASA is going to reach Mars, much less land on it, anytime in the near future without significant and sustained increases to its budget.

It is after all, just a one-page item on NASA.gov designed to connect the achievements of the past with plans for the future. Still, in a time when governmental willingness to obfuscate the facts seems to reaching new highs, (or lows) almost weekly, one might wish NASA could address the challenges of the present in more direct manner.

What do you think?


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2 Comments on "45 Years Later"

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  1. kap55 says:

    NASA is just whistling in the dark. In the long-term, Mars is a dead-end; it will never be habitable without truly massive investments that we are unwilling to make. (Heck, we aren’t even willing to make the much more modest investments needed to make the Moon habitable.) In the long-term, asteroid redirect will have much more significant returns on many more fronts: scientifically, financially, and climatologically.

  2. Utilizing lunar polar water resources for fuel, providing drinking water and air, and mass shielding for reusable interplanetary vehicles is the fastest and cheapest way to get to Mars in an economically sustainable fashion.


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