Fortunately, NASA's boosters—and its critics—also have a lot of advice about how Griffin could tip the scales more strongly in favor of making it to Mars.
A good first step, some say, would be to skip the return to the moon. That suggestion has some surprising sympathizers, including NASA's own head of human exploration. "I've been asking that question for 15 years: Why not just go straight to Mars?" Horowitz says. "As some say about the moon, 'Been there, done that, got that badge.'" He quickly adds that he now supports the NASA party line: It is prudent to work out any kinks in the new systems within rescuable distance of Earth, a lunar base will provide experience with surviving in an alien environment, and there's plenty of great science still to be done on the moon. Even Griffin has acknowledged the advantages of heading directly to Mars, but he emphasizes the downside. "It can be done, and it will be cheaper, but the risk to both the mission goals and to human life will be significantly higher," he told Congress in 2004.
Then again, whatever may go wrong on a Mars mission won't necessarily show itself on an earlier trip to the moon. It's not as if the shuttle hadn't been put through its paces before we lost the Challenger in 1986, and that experience didn't save us from later losing the Columbia. In reality, say a number of NASA analysts, the biggest reason the White House and NASA want to go to the moon first is because it can happen soon enough to provide some payback for the politicians who support it. "It's not that we couldn't afford a mission to Mars," says R. John Hansman of MIT. "It's that it wouldn't take place within a timescale that is politically useful. So we end up going on a shorter mission that is of less societal benefit but that's achievable in that time frame."
Griffin is betting that a lunar program could also rally broader public support. He hasn't hesitated to play the China card in urging Congress to back a return to the moon. "How are we going to feel when one of the Apollo lunar landing flags is returned to Earth and displayed in a museum—in Beijing?" he asked Congress in 2003. Although it is the Russians, not the Chinese, who have publicly stated their intentions to head to the moon, China is considered the more worrisome nation by far on Capitol Hill. Creating a sense that we are once again locked in a lunar space race with a rival superpower might be an easy way to get the country behind NASA's budget. "We're a competitive country," says John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "The idea of competing with China in a race to the moon is an act of political artifice."
Whether NASA aims for sooner or later, seeing the Mars mission through will depend heavily on whether there is a way to make it less costly. Actually, a more appropriate question might be: Could NASA have possibly designed a more expensive way to get to Mars? "My advice to Mike Griffin," Pike says, "is to lock himself in a room with Burt Rutan and other people who know how to get things done successfully, quickly, and cheaply." Rutan is the renegade aerospace engineer whose company, Scaled Composites, backed by billionaire entrepreneur Paul Allen, designed and built SpaceShipOne, the first reusable private spacecraft to breach the edge of outer space twice in a week, winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004. The point of that exercise was that the project was run by a tiny, innovative team at high speed and low cost. Scaled Composites has designed and built 26 new aircraft in 30 years this way, working out of a few corrugated-metal buildings on a desolate tract of the Mojave Desert in California, a world away from the giant aerospace contractors hobnobbing around Washington, D.C.
In fact, an entire industry of nimble space-vehicle ventures has sprung up in recent years, including SpaceX, headed by PayPal founder Elon Musk; Armadillo Aerospace, started by computer-game developer John Carmack; Blue Origin, a pet project of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos; and SpaceDev, which came up with the novel rocket engine that powered SpaceShipOne. SpaceX is working on the capability to launch satellites into orbit for around a third of the $70 million or so that Boeing typically charges.
Griffin loudly sings the praises of tapping into this sort of entrepreneurial energy, and the agency is bringing at least the sheen of it to its new plans. NASA is running a competition that will select a private company to provide $500 million in cargo- and crew-ferrying services to the International Space Station and has chipped in $2 million toward a new $2.5 million X-Prize competition for a lunar-lander-type vehicle. Horowitz expects more of this in the future. "We're seeing some new players, like Burt Rutan and others, who have some real innovative designs," he says. "Maybe some of the ideas are too innovative. But they might get us the thing we're after for a more reasonable cost."
While competitions and prizes suggest that Griffin is eager to change NASA's image as a slave of big contractors, there's no sign that this sort of thinking will spill into the way the agency pursues its core-mission hardware. That's a missed opportunity, some of the new space entrepreneurs assert. "I think we could do it for around $5 billion," Elon Musk of SpaceX says about going to Mars. Pike doubts that Musk could do a multiperson Mars mission for less than $100 billion, but that would still be one-fifth or even less the price NASA would most likely pay were it to stick to a conventional course.
Ultimately, NASA's future depends not on better mission concepts and cheaper hardware so much as on the agency's ability to convince the public that space exploration is a crucial part of human destiny. "The problem with the president's vision is that there's no sense of urgency to it," Pike says. "He's the first American president since his father who has no idea why we have a space program. Up through Reagan we had competition with the Russians, and Clinton had cooperation with the Russians. Space was always a foreign policy initiative for us, and now that leaves NASA a 'how' agency with a 'why' problem." The public's interest could simply fade away, leaving America, a nation of immigrants and pioneers, without a frontier to explore for the first time in its history.
Posing the problem that way suggests a solution, however. What motivates people to open up frontiers has always been the desire to get away from problems back home, or the promise of riches. NASA could tap into either, or both.
Griffin told Congress in 2003, "The proper goal of a publicly funded space program is to enable the human settlement of the solar system." That is, the best reason for blazing a trail to Mars is to begin the process of opening up an alternative to living on Earth. "If the dinosaurs had had a space program, they'd be around today," Horowitz says, paraphrasing Carl Sagan. That's a joke, of course, but he says NASA is starting to take the "Earth II" idea more seriously. Even Stephen Hawking has been pushing this idea lately. With global warming, the increasing availability of nuclear weapons to unstable nations, and the growing possibility of bioterror, we won't necessarily have to wait around for an asteroid to make life on Mars suddenly seem appealing. "Is NASA making the settlement idea a priority?" Horowitz asks. "No, but people aren't getting slapped down for saying it as much as before. It had been totally taboo because of the giggle factor."
As for the promise of riches, the commercialization of Mars exploration would seem ideologically in tune with the current administration. Oddly, Bush has said nothing about it, and Griffin has played down the idea. The giggle factor may again be at work. Claims that companies will be profitably strip-mining Mars, operating fuel stations there, or welcoming tourists who have sold their homes to afford a Mars ticket do, admittedly, seem a little loopy.
On the other hand, even far-fetched ideas can resonate with the public. Seeing the gutsy crew of a SpaceShipOne-style vehicle line up to make their own big gamble on a trip to Mars might be enough to inspire the public, and Congress, to help pony up the funds. On a smaller scale, that kind of public-private competition led to the decoding of the human genome far more quickly and cheaply than almost anyone expected. Griffin seems open-minded enough to steward this sort of change, if Congress is pushed into backing him.
All of that depends on whether the public still feels stirred by the magic of space exploration. Certainly the twin rovers on Mars and the intrepid Cassini spacecraft dodging around Saturn's rings have generated a powerful sense of wonder, yet those are exactly the kinds of projects that are at risk as Griffin places his bet on human voyagers, not mechanical surrogates.
If in the end we the public remain unmoved by the notion of a crewed mission to Mars, then maybe the human race ought to stay home for a while. A science-rich and manned-flight-poor NASA won't be such a terrible thing. We will still get to see what we are missing out there, if only through robotic eyes. Even if we lose Mars as an escape hatch, maybe NASA science will give us the tools to keep Earth habitable—which, when you think about it, is a pretty sane trade-off.
Where Does Your NASA Dollar Go?
The $16.8 billion 2007 budget request for NASA—roughly half the size of the National Institutes of Health budget but three times as large as that of the National Science Foundation—will support an uneasy mix of manned programs and pure science. Facing limited funds, NASA administrator Michael Griffin slashed many science programs, including astrobiology (down 50 percent in the 2007 request) and the development of nuclear propulsion systems for spacecraft (down 97 percent). Although Congress may restore some funding to science, Griffin's decision to focus on sending humans to the moon and Mars means that more tough decisions loom. By 2011, if current projections hold, manned space exploration will grow from just 10 percent in 2006 to more than 40 percent of NASA's budget. Agency activities fall into five categories:
Space Operations: $6.23 billion. Currently the most expensive component of NASA. Funds the space shuttle ($4.06 billion) and the International Space Station ($1.81 billion). Space and Flight Support ($370 million) covers astronaut health and safety and Earth-based communications with missions.
Science: $5.33 billion. Covers unmanned research missions. Earth-Sun System ($2.21 billion) funds efforts to understand Earth's weather and its changing climate. Solar System ($1.60 billion) supports continued operation of the Mars rovers, the Cassini spacecraft, and others. Universe ($1.51 billion) includes servicing the Hubble Space Telescope and developing its replacement.
Exploration Systems: $3.98 billion. Most of the money for the planned human exploration of the moon and Mars will come from here. Constellation Systems ($3.06 billion) funds the Lunar Landing, Extended Lunar Stay, and Mars Landing Capability programs, including development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle. Exploration Systems Research and Technology ($650 million) covers nuclear technologies to propel and power spacecraft. Human Systems Research and Technology ($270 million) explores the health dangers posed by spending time in space.
Aeronautics Research: $720 million. Includes funding for aviation safety, new propulsion systems, and NASA's wind-tunnel facilities.
Cross-Agency Support: $490 million. Funds interactions with industry, academia, and government. —Anne Wootton
Cost in Space
As NASA funnels money to the space shuttle and a return to the moon, a number of unmanned science missions have been delayed or cut. These are a few key examples.
1. Constellation-X Observatory (target date, 2017; cost, $2.5 billion)
These four satellites would act as one giant X-ray telescope, 100 times more sensitive than any other. Scientists planned to use it to explore galaxy formation, test Einstein's general theory of relativity, and probe the nature of dark matter and dark energy.
2. Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO, shown above) (target date, 2017; cost, $10 billion)
If life exists elsewhere in our solar system, scientists suspect it might be on Europa, an ice-covered moon orbiting Jupiter. JIMO would determine whether Europa has a buried ocean and find potential landing sites for future missions to search for life down below.
3. Terrestrial Planet Finder (target date, 2020; cost, $1.7 billion)
Get more information on NASA's "search for another earth," including a running counter of the number of known extra-solar planets (176 when the magazine went to print).
Visit the Web site of the Planetary Society, which is conducting a campaign called S.O.S.: Save Our Science, on behalf of NASA's 2007 science budget.
NASA's Outer Planets Assessment Group generates ideas and gives advice on exploring the outer solar system.