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Space Exploration

The Right Stuff


NASA’s Curiosity Rover successfully accomplished the most difficult feat in space flight to date[1]. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) was launched from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas V 541 rocket on November 26, 2011. The spacecraft traveled 352 million miles over 36 weeks to reach the Red Planet. That was the easy part.

Once it penetrated Mars’ atmosphere, the re-entry and landing phase lasted 7 minutes. Scientists and engineers back on Earth at the Jet Propulsion Lab would have to wait a further 14 minutes due to the time lag in receiving signals from Mars. The NASA folks called these the “Seven Minutes of Terror”. Here is a link to a NASA video on the landing procedure.

This was the most complex re-entry and landing ever attempted. First, the Re-Entry Vehicle’s (REV) heat shield would have to withstand temperatures of up to 3,800º F for approximately 4 minutes. At the same time, the REV is engaged in hypersonic flight, using tungsten ballast to change the vehicle’s flight angle and use the shape of the heat shield to generate lift. The REV also has four reaction thrusters for fine-tuning of the flight characteristics to react to local atmospheric conditions.

Four minutes into the flight, the REV deploys the largest and strongest parachute ever used in planetary re-entry. The parachute is meant to deploy while the REV is still traveling at supersonic speeds, up to Mach 2.2, and slow the craft down to about 220 mph – still far too fast for landing. The heat shield drops away and permits the lander’s radar to begin operation, scanning the terrain and making a final selection of landing zone. A smaller set of thrusters begins operation to bring the lander directly over the landing site.

Since Curiosity is the heaviest payload ever sent to Mars, weighing in just short of one ton, the previous landing method of using inflatable balloons to dampen the impact would not work, the rover was simply too heavy. NASA engineers determined to use a rocket-assisted landing. The drawback to this is that if the rockets were used all the way down to the ground, the blast from rockets would lift up tremendous amounts of Martian dust, which would settle on the rover and potentially damage, incapacitate or destroy the lander’s delicate equipment. The solution was to keep the rockets on a separate piece of equipment, known as the Sky Crane, which would hover over the landing site and lower the rover to the ground on cables.

All of these procedures would have to be completed without human intervention at a distance of 150 million miles. So complex is the landing procedure and so high the need for precision and flawless execution, that many engineers have declared it “ridiculous”.

But it worked.

Curiosity rover proves that the US still has the right stuff to lead in space. The American technological advantage still exists, though other nations have significant capabilities as well: Russia, China, Japan and the European Space Agency.  All have proven space flight capabilities, and there is no reason to think that their scientific and engineering credentials are any less advanced than ours. In fact, in some aspects, the US must struggle to catch up.

In fact, Curiosity may end up being the high-water mark of American space exploration. With the permanent retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, and the cancellation of the Constellation Program, the United States has a very limited heavy-lift capability. While the 2010 NASA Authorization Act includes the development of a new generation of heavy-lift vehicles called the Space Launch System (SLS), these rockets are years away from being operational.

Managing the on-time and on-cost development of space equipment has not proven to be NASA’s strong suit. Constellation was cancelled due to being “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation.”[2] Criticism of SLS is already focusing on the same themes: why design a brand new system instead of either reutilizing or improving old ones?[3] And even if a new system is required, why not have the private sector develop it under a fixed price competition (rather than the closed government contracting on a cost plus basis)? Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, claims his company could deliver a vehicle meeting NASA requirements for $2.5 billion, rather than the overly optimistic $10 billion that is budgeted for the SLS launcher, and in less time too.[4]

It is reasonable to assume that SLS will also be “over budget, behind schedule” and outclassed by private industry pioneers like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which really does have to maximize efficiency.  Beyond the traditional budgetary games and inefficiencies, what is at the heart of the problem is that NASA lacks a clear mission. In the 1960’s, we had to beat the Soviets to the moon. In the 1970’s, it was all about developing the Space Shuttle and Skylab. Then we lost our direction in the 1980’s.

NASA Director Charles Bolden couldn’t have made it any plainer than in a recent interview where he said, “I have no desire to do a Mars landing on our own,” referring to a human mission, “The U.S. cannot always be the leader.”[5] Can anyone doubt that America would have lost the Space Race with the Soviet Union had Mr. Bolden’s attitude been prevalent in the 1960’s? Unfortunately, that is the official position of the US government, and has been for the past 30 years.

A series of disasters shook the establishment complacency and led to an ultraconservative attitude, a zero tolerance for loss of human life. On top of the already inefficient NASA procurement bureaucracy, additional costs were added in redundancy upon redundancy to achieve ever diminishing returns in crew safety. And still accidents happen. How can they not? We are launching people into orbit on top of a 400-foot long spire filled with 6 million pounds of highly volatile propellant. What could go wrong?

Let me be clear about one thing: I’m not advocating taking avoidable or excessive risks that put people’s lives in danger. But space flight is an inherently risky affair; it is the ultimate in hostile environments. Let’s be realistic – no matter what we do, more people are going to die in space in the future. But if the Europeans had waited to perfect the steamship before crossing the Atlantic, they surely never would have arrived (to the great happiness of the Native Americans, undoubtedly).

Mars is a prize worth reaching for. It is the logical next step in our space program. Furthermore, NASA has demonstrated that it has the technological, engineering and mission skills needed today to successfully execute Mars missions. There is no need to wait to develop a whole new set of vehicles and equipment. If the American people demanded it, and the American government ordered it, NASA could begin planning launches to preposition equipment on Mars in anticipation of a human mission within a decade, perhaps earlier. Former NASA engineer Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, has outlined how this could be achieved using existing technology and for far less than the hundreds of billions of dollars claimed by NASA.[6]

Of course, there are those who claim that we already spend too much on space, that it is a purely scientific pursuit with no practical applications, and a luxury we cannot afford in these times of economic distress. Wrong on all counts.

First, we spend far less on space exploration and related R&D than we ever have since the inception of NASA in 1958.


From a peak of 4.41% of GDP spent in 1966, America’s space expenditure has fallen every single year, with the exception of a brief period between 1988 and 1991. Today, we are spending 0.48% of our GDP on space.

Consider that the direct costs of the unnecessary war in Iraq from 2003 through the present are on the order of $758 billion dollars.[7] That’s enough to fund NASA for the next 40 years at current levels, or else pay for three missions to Mars, even by NASA’s bloated figures, with some left over at the end.

The investment in space, because it is not money thrown away, has paid back the civilian economy many times over. Multiple studies have shown that the R&D associated with the space program has been responsible for hundreds of technological breakthroughs and thousands of practical applications:

  • The Midwest Research Institute concluded in 1971 that “the $25 billion in 1958 dollars spent on civilian space R & D during the 1958-1969 period has returned $52 billion through 1971 — and will continue to produce pay offs through 1987, at which time the total pay off will have been $181 billion. The discounted rate of return for this investment will have been 33 percent,” which compares very favorably with almost any long-term appreciation of capital  you’d care to name;
  • A 1989 study by Chapman Research examined 259 non-space applications of NASA technologies between 9176 and 1984 and found that these had generated $21.6 billion in sales; 352,000 in skilled jobs; and $355 million in Federal corporate income tax revenue;
  • A 1992 article in Nature added that those 259 non-space applications outlined in the Chapman Research report represented “only 1% of an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Space program spin-offs.”[8]

The question is really: can America afford NOT to invest in space? If we plan to maintain a technological advantage in manufacturing, materials, medicine and other fields as yet unexplored or undiscovered, we must make space technologies a central part of this effort. And it is not a question of simply increasing the appallingly low NASA budget: the Space Agency must learn to cooperate more extensively and more efficiently with private industries like Space X, to deliver projects and equipment at a minimum cost to the taxpayer and to avoid the costly overruns and failures which have tarnished the space program’s bright image.

To truly succeed, Americans must unite behind a single goal: land an American on Mars and bring them back to earth safely. Just as John F. Kennedy said with unsurpassed eloquence more than 50 years ago:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”[9]

In an age of national division, of political bitterness and economic pessimism, war and space are the two endeavors most capable of uniting the American people. The latter brings with it great economic benefits: new technologies, new industries, new jobs, a high-tech, competitive manufacturing base in the United States for the XXIst and XXIInd centuries. Incalculable advances in our scientific and engineering knowledge. A national purpose, and the next step in the progress of humankind.

The modern space race should not be allowed to degenerate into a belligerent one, or a hostile and exclusive race like the one against the Soviet Union. Cooperation with our European and Japanese allies and partners should be encouraged; indeed, we are far more likely to succeed if we harness their skills and energy. Russia, China and India – all with their own viable space programs – should also participate. But we should be prepared to go it alone, and to never concede the lead in space to any other nation.

As a people and a nation, we are defined by our choices. We will choose to be “a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast design”[10] and accomplish the great things, the difficult things. Or we will slip into confusion, rancor and mediocrity.


Sources and Notes:

[1]Boyle, Alan, “NASA’s Curiosity rover scores touchdown on Mars,” NBC News, 6 August 2012
[2] Achenbach, Joel, “NASA budget for 2011 eliminates funds for manned lunar missions”, Washington Post, 01 February 2010
[3] Bonin, Grant, “Human spaceflight for less: the case for smaller launch vehicles, revisited”, The Space Review, 06 June 2011
[4] Strickland Jr., John K., “The SpaceX Falcon Heavy Booster: Why Is It Important?”, National Space Society, September 2011.
[5] Vergano, Dan, “NASA Chief: U.S.  won’t go it alone on manned Mars mission,” US Today, 02 August 2012
[6] Zubrin, Robert, “How We Can Fly to Mars in This Decade—And on the Cheap”, Mars Society, 14 May 2011
[7] Crawford, Neta and Lutz, Catherine, “Economic and Budgetary Costs of the Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan to the United States: A Summary”. Costs of War, Brown University, 20 July 2011
[8] Bezdek, Roger H. and Wendling, Robert M., “Sharing out NASA’s spoils”. Nature, 09 January 1992
[9] Text of President John F. Kennedy, Rice University Stadium, 12 September 1962
[10] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “A Lecture read before the Mercantile Library Association of Boston,” 07 February 1844

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