Kickstarting a plan for an affordable route to Mars

Rand Simberg opens a Kickstarter campaign to fund a study and report on how to reach Mars within the budgets expected for  NASA for the next couple of decades: Clearing The Roadblock To Mars by Rand Simberg – Kickstarter

Since the end of Apollo, NASA’s human spaceflight program has been more jobs program than space program. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on it in current-year dollars, with little currently to show for it other than a space station that we share with Europe, Japan and Russia, and for which we are currently reliant on the Russians to access.

The latest, and most blatant and egregious phenomenon of a NASA program created primarily for the sake of the jobs it provides is the Space Launch System aka the Senate Launch System (and, to a lesser extent, the Orion Crew Capsule). Proponents of it claim that it is not possible to get humans to Mars, or beyond low earth orbit at all, without them. But most independent analyses (and even internal NASA studies) indicate that not only are they unnecessary for that purpose, but they are chewing up all the budget that could be going to things that are necessary, but are not being funded at all. NASA propaganda is that SLS/Orion are “stepping stones on the road to Mars” but, in reality, they are exactly the opposite; they are a roadblock.

Last summer, the National Research Council issued a report on Human Spaceflight that laid out a “stepping stone and pathways” approach to Mars that would culminate in sending a few NASA astronauts to that planet some time around mid century, after spending many tens of billions of dollars.

More recently, the Planetary Society commissioned a report from the Aerospace Corporation and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose details have not yet been released, but proposes a “low cost” mission to get NASA astronauts to Mars by the mid 2030s.

In both cases, those doing the studies were burdened by an almost-insurmountable constraint: A politically dictated ground rule that the plans must include SLS/Orion. Given the high cost of operations of these systems, and their intrinsically low flight rate (once or twice a year at best, and likely much less), it is a millstone around the neck of any ambitious plans to even explore, let alone develop and settle space.

The American people deserve to know the degree to which Congress is forcing NASA to waste money on these boondoggles, and the exciting things that could be happening if that money were actually being spent on the things needed to actually open up space. This project proposes to take the same budget that is proposed to take so long to do so little, and provide at least one example of the amazing things that could be done if Congress allowed it to be spent sanely.

The project output will be a report describing how that same budget could have many people venturing out into the solar system within two decades or less, utilizing soon-to-be existing commercial transportation and habitation systems, and new developments, in technology and hardware, that could and would occur if the money currently being wasted on SLS/Orion could be redirected to them.

For example, they would include propellant storage facilities, and the beginning of the utilization of off-planet resources for both life support and propellant, technologies that have been starved for funding, but would be game changers in reducing cost and dramatically increasing activity levels. The “bang for the buck” that NASA is currently planning could easily be increased by a couple orders of magnitude.  [My emphasis]

The purpose is to provide an alternate vision as the basis for the needed and inevitable policy debate that will occur with the new administration in 2017 (as it did in 2009), as it once again becomes clear that the current path is unsustainable, and that, more than ever, commercial alternatives are increasingly viable.

The funding goal amount of $12,000, after deductions to Kickstarter et all, will allow me sufficient resources to focus on this project through the early fall, and would provide a written report only. However, as a stretch goal, if I can raise twice the amount, I’ll also produce a video, with some amount of professional assistance, depending on how much we exceed that goal. In that event, videos will be provided as rewards as well as the written report.