Redirect: “If You Set Out to Go to Mars, Go to Mars”

I’d like to call your attention to a really interesting piece in the by Harley Thronson submitted to the  Human Spaceflight Study Group at the National Academies. Entitled “If You Set Out to Go to Mars, Go to Mars.” Its thesis is simple: the culture of the human spaceflight communities is hospitable to scenarios, architectures, and technologies that are unambiguously unaffordable and/or infeasible. Thronson sees this as a distraction from the hard decisions necessary for post-ISS human space exploration. He also points out that the popular architecture of industrialization of the lunar surface to support subsequent human solar system expansion, “Moon first, then Mars,” reverses the historical experience of human exploration of the Earth. Send the small group of pioneers and explorers first and only later build the expensive infrastructure to support development. That is, “Mars first, then the Moon.”

It’s an interesting take on the issue. What do you think?

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4 Responses to Redirect: “If You Set Out to Go to Mars, Go to Mars”

  1. Kenneth Katz says:

    Sorry to be a downer, but choosing which architecture America will use to send astronauts to Mars is like considering which supermodel I will date. Americans will not walk on Mars during my lifetime, and I doubt that people of any other nationality will do so either. There’s just not the cultural vitality, confidence and assertiveness to do so, and without those, the political will won’t exist.

    Just to put that in perspective, the guy who is writing this aspired as a young boy to be the first person to land on a moon of Jupiter, since I figured that I was born too late to be the first astronaut to step on Mars.


  2. GHK says:

    I think that Harley’s Gemini step-by-step approach example is a good model to emulate; while a lot of people thought about using Gemini for bigger things including moon missions, none of those came to fruition but they did get their more immediate goals successfully completed and applied them to the then future moon missions. While its great to have some science fiction writers thinking about what a Mars mission (or Moon base) might look like in another generation, it is so far off I’d rather see the steps lined up so that we knew whthe kinds of things we needed to be doing in five, ten and fifteen years…to develop the capabilities and technology to eventually be able to do a Mars mission. Trying to invent the hardware and vehicle for a manned Mars mission today makes about as much sense as the Wright Brothers working on the design of a P-51 Mustang-a fanciful conception but useless in 1903 when spruce and canvas were the assembly materials. We did not start out with jet airliners by building Boeing 747s. We went through a 40 year long learning curve starting with Ford Tri-Motor, then Boeing 247s (and DC-3s), then pressurized airliners like the 307 then smaller jet airliners like the 707s. We eventually got to the 747 but we developed a lot of useful capabilities for the interim and learned what it would take to do the 747 job. When we designed the ISS we went for a modular approach so that we could design and test building blocks that could eventually be used for future missions. We had artists concepts of Moon and Mars craft based on ISS in 1988. But, just as we do not know today, we didn’t know in 1988 where we would go next (the Station was going to be finished in 1994 so we figured those future vehicles and habitats would need to be ready about the turn of the century); we knew what kinds of capabilities could be developed in the near term that could ease the way in the future. In 1993 when we designed hardware for the Mir Orbital Station we made the hardware modular and adaptable on purpose so that we could eventually use it on ISS or Mars missions; Mir is long gone but a lot of the hardware is still in use 20 years later. Mars missions will happen when it becomes somewhat easier to do. We can be taking the necessary steps today. But starting by designing the final architecture for the Mars mission today is useless. Designing and developing the interim steps can be useful if an appropriate approach is taken.


  3. Doug Lassiter says:

    The point about how human exploration of the Earth has been done by sending pioneers first, and only then developing infrastructure, seems somewhat mistaken. While Lewis and Clark were pioneers who crossed the continental divide to get to the Pacific coast, the destination was not unexplored by humans. The mouth of the Columbia River was charted fifteen years before that, and the river was soon after explored by George Vancouver. Those earlier explorers built their expeditions on experience from many less ambitious expeditions to destinations closer to home, with infrastructure support much closer and more economical than their home ports in England and Europe. Vancouver himself wintered over in Hawaii before setting sail for the Pacific Northwest, where he was able to take on many supplies that made the trip far more tractable. In fact, Lewis and Clark, who departed fully equipped by the infrastructure that was established at the well-outfitted military Camp Dubois near what is now Springfield, Illinois, would have had a much harder time had they relied on supplies from the White House or Monticello, where their trip was originally commanded by President Jefferson.

    I think it is pretty simplistic to think about historical explorers as not being supported by preexisting infrastructure. That’s not to say that we need to develop the Moon to get to Mars, but just that the
    historical lesson isn’t necessarily inconsistent with that.


    • Harley Thronson says:

      Thank you. You are correct, of course, that explorers and pioneering expeditions made use of whatever infrastructure existed at the time. Vancouver, Lewis, and Clark would not have been able to carry out their storied exploration without existing depots. The analogy in my Space Review essay was perforce limited and intended to make the point that extensive industrial-level exploitation of the Moon, almost certainly costing the far side of a trillion dollars, is not either necessary or plausible in advance of early, limited human missions to Mars.

      I am not part of the Inspiration Mars team and I don’t have the expertise to judge the realism of their plan. However, they are being taken seriously by sober-minded engineers and technologists. Whatever the fate of Inspiration Mars, the closer they get to success, the more that that activity will convince skeptics that an affordable early mission is possible — and desirable — before hundreds of billions are spent on lunar surface development.

      Thank you again,



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