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The emphasis of the Vision for Space Exploration for the fifteen years or so will be primarily on returning humans to the Moon, but you wouldn’t know that from reading Rolling Stone. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

Getting Stoned on Mars

Most of the media attention to NASA’s exploration vision has been found in the usual locations: a handful of newspapers that are either national in scope (New York Times, Washington Post) or with local space ties (Florida Today, Houston Chronicle), a number of online publications (including this one, of course), and the occasional piece in newsweeklies (Time, Newsweek) or science monthlies (Discover, Scientific American). Beyond that, though, there has been little coverage of NASA’s plans to return to the Moon and go on to Mars.

So that’s why there was a bit of surprise a few weeks ago when word leaked out that NASA’s exploration plans were the subject of a lengthy article in, of all places, Rolling Stone magazine. It actually shouldn’t be that unexpected: while Rolling Stone is best known for its coverage of entertainment in general and the music business in particular (pop star and “comeback diva” Mariah Carey graced the cover of issue #994), the magazine has built up a reputation for doing in-depth journalism on a vast array of topics. In this case Rolling Stone devoted over 6,000 words, spread out over several oversized pages in dense, small type, to the article “Mars or Bust”. After reading the article, though, space advocates or those simply familiar with NASA’s plans might have wished the magazine had instead expanded its coverage of Ms. Carey.

Eyes on the wrong prize

Rolling Stone’s exegesis on the Vision for Space Exploration is written by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, whom the magazine identifies only as a “writer in Washington, D.C.” who is making his first appearance in the pages of the magazine. Wallace-Wells has a day job as an editor at The Washington Monthly magazine, where he regularly pens articles, primarily on politics but sometimes on topics far afield, from the imminent collapse of the real estate market (written, um, two years ago) to female boxing. Suffice it say, though, that Mr. Wallace-Wells, at the very least, does not frequently write about space.

“Impressed by such leaping aims, Congress has endorsed the Mars mission as NASA’s sole goal, even though the effort is expected to take fifty years and cost at least $500 billion,” Wallace-Wells writes. What about those claims of 50 years and $500 billion?

That’s not necessarily a bad thing: an outsider, without the preconceived notions and biases of an insider, can provide fresh insights into a particular topic. The disadvantage, though, is that said outsider may not be fully up to speed on the topic, and may tend to miss the nuances and oversimplify. That certainly appears to be the case here, where Wallace-Wells portrays the Vision as a program with a monomaniacal focus on Mars, with nary a mention of NASA’s very real shorter-term goal of returning humans to the Moon.

Take, for example, this sentence: “Impressed by such leaping aims, Congress has endorsed the Mars mission as NASA’s sole goal, even though the effort is expected to take fifty years and cost at least $500 billion.” This appears to be a reference to the NASA authorization legislation passed by Congress last year (PL 109-155), but Congress did not direct NASA to send humans to Mars as its sole goal. As the language endorsing the Vision for Space Exploration states:

The Administrator shall establish a program to develop a sustained human presence on the Moon, including a robust precursor program, to promote exploration, science, commerce, and United States preeminence in space, and as a stepping-stone to future exploration of Mars and other destinations.

That makes it pretty clear that Mars is a goal for NASA, just not the only goal nor necessarily the most important one. (And if one doubts that, just read other sections of the authorization legislation that outline other goals for the space agency wholly separate from the Vision.) Yet the article focuses almost entirely on the prospects and obstacles associated with sending humans to Mars, and mentions only in passing that NASA plans to send humans back to the Moon before 2020. That’s the inverse of the final report of NASA’s Exploration Systems Architecture Study, released a few months ago, which briefly mentions a “design reference mission” for a manned Mars mission, but otherwise focuses almost exclusively on going back to the Moon.

And what about those claims of 50 years and $500 billion? The cost figure in particular conjures ghosts of the trillion-dollar price tags floated in the media immediately after the Vision was announced in January 2004 (See “Whispers in the echo chamber: Why the media says the space plan costs a trillion dollars”, The Space Review, March 22, 2004.) NASA has not published any timelines or budgets for Mars exploration beyond 2020, so those figures have no official imprimatur. NASA officials have publicly suggested that human Mars exploration might begin no earlier than 2030, but that is highly speculative at this early stage, to say the least. The source for those estimates appears to be former Johnson Space Center director George Abbey, who says, “It may take half a century, it will probably cost hundreds of billions of dollars and it will be one of the most complicated and challenging things we’ve ever done. But the human race is going to Mars.”

Another source of the $500-billion cost estimate comes from an anonymous “NASA insider”, who says, “You’re talking about a project on the order of $500 billion, and right now they’re budgeting $1 billion per year for it.” Perhaps Wallace-Wells should have fact-checked his source: the fiscal year 2006 budget includes about $3 billion for Exploration Systems programs, with nearly $4 billion requested for 2007. The long-term projections included in the FY2007 budget request summary—which should be taken with a grain of salt, since a lot can happen over the next year, let alone the next decade—call for the exploration budget to grow to about $14 billion/year by FY2017.

Wallace-Wells also conflates human Moon and Mars exploration in this passage: “The Congressional Budget Office concluded that the Mars mission will cost more than the $104 billion that NASA has projected through 2018, forcing the agency to cancel more promising experiments. Abbey, the former Johnson director, says the price tag will ultimately run as high as $500 billion.” He appears to be referring to the September 2004 CBO report on the potential for cost growth in the Vision through 2020 (See “Estimating the cost of the vision”, The Space Review, September 7, 2004). However, very little of this expense is associated with “the Mars mission” but instead with returning humans to the Moon. The two sentences may suggest to the reader that NASA has wildly underestimated the costs of going to Mars, when in fact no one has a clear idea of how much it will cost, in large part because there is no accepted definition of what “going to Mars” means and what costs would be included in that estimate.

Science and engineering

For some readers, something else might stand out in the quoted passage in the previous paragraph: that the cost of going to Mars, whatever it might be, might lead NASA “to cancel more promising experiments.” More promising? One theme in the article is that the high costs of sending humans to Mars might hurt NASA’s science programs. As Wallace-Wells writes, “To pay for a manned mission to Mars, NASA will have to scrap virtually every other scientific project, no matter how profound or far-reaching it might be – a decision that could have potentially disastrous consequences.”

As Wallace-Wells writes, “To pay for a manned mission to Mars, NASA will have to scrap virtually every other scientific project, no matter how profound or far-reaching it might be – a decision that could have potentially disastrous consequences.”

One might say that Mr. Wallace-Wells is reflecting the concern in the scientific community today about NASA’s FY07 budget proposal, which is putting the squeeze on science programs in general and leading to the cancellation of delay of several in particular. In that respect, he is arguably prescient: his article was almost certainly submitted and being prepared for publication when the FY07 budget came out early last month. However, he offers little proof that human exploration of Mars will lead to the cancellation of “virtually every other scientific project”—perhaps because we don’t know how much any of those things will cost, or how big NASA’s budget will be in the decades to come. There may well be plenty of room for both, particularly once NASA is relieved of the cost burdens of the shuttle and station over the next decade.

Much of the article is devoted to the challenges of human Mars exploration, including both the technological and human factors issues associated with long-duration spaceflight. Wallace-Wells goes through a litany of concerns, from radiation exposure to precision landing to preventing strife among crewmembers. These are all valid concerns that will have to be addressed before humans can successfully journey to Mars, but the implication in the article is that one or more of these may be showstoppers:

Putting humans on Mars will require a quantum leap in both science and industry. The technical challenges are so daunting, in fact, that many of the leading scientists responsible for getting us from here to there doubt that it is possible. “What worries me most,” says Gentry Lee, a veteran of the Apollo missions and the lead systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “is that I don’t think that we're smart enough to pull it off right now.”

Wait a moment… right now? Who’s talking about going to Mars right now? One of the themes of the article is that sending humans to Mars is a venture that will take fifty years to accomplish. If that really is the case—and that’s debatable, of course—then one must consider that technological advances in the decades to come may resolve some of the issues. This isn’t the only case of collision between the near and long term in the article. Earlier, Wallace-Wells writes, “Bobby Braun, an earnest young engineering professor at Georgia Tech, has dedicated his entire career to figuring out how to bring hurtling objects to an interstellar stop, setting down softly on their destinations rather than crashing into them.” The “dedicated his entire career” phrase loses some of its punch when contrasted with the “earnest young engineering professor” phrase almost immediately before it.

When Wallace-Wells tries to dig into some of the details about these issues, it becomes clear that he is out of his element, and makes mistakes both minor and major. In one case, he described an incident as follows:

This point was underlined last year, when a male cosmonaut on the space station tried to kiss a female Canadian colleague. She, quite literally, ran the other way. Mission Control had to remotely lock the door to the Canadian’s quarters so the Russian couldn’t get in, and wait for everyone’s tempers to cool.

That would be a great story—if it happened. The problem is that there was no female Canadian astronaut—indeed, no Canadian astronaut at all—on the ISS in 2005. Wallace-Wells appears to be referring to an incident that took place in late 1999—not last year—and not on the space station but instead a simulation of a long-duration spaceflight on the ground in Russia.

When Wallace-Wells tries to dig into some of the details about these issues, it becomes clear that he is out of his element, and makes mistakes both minor and major.

Immediately after that, Wallace-Wells talks about the challenges of producing propellant on the Martian surface that would be used for the return trip. “The plans currently being developed by aerospace engineers border on the ludicrous,” he writes, and then goes through a series of proposals that are, to be a fair, a bit ludicrous: building solar panels on the Moon and then beaming the power to Mars by microwave, or mining helium-3 (which Wallace-Wells inexplicably calls “hyperexplosive elements”). For some reason, though, he ignores the leading method for generating propellant on the Martian surface: reacting carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere with hydrogen to generate methane and oxygen. The closest he gets is a “more modest project” to “break down rocks” on Mars, but that’s not needed on Mars since carbon dioxide is much more readily available in the atmosphere. The “ludicrous” examples above, in fact, are more likely misinterpreted proposals for generating power on the Moon for terrestrial purposes, not in support of Mars exploration.

Kooks and their wacky books

One blatant case where bias seeps into the article is when Wallace-Wells talks about the space advocacy movement. As he writes, “Long before the president laid out the Vision, a ragtag bunch of amateur astronomers, apocalyptic kooks and Babylon 5 fans had been urging mankind to fulfill its destiny by heading out into the solar system… Their leader – the man who has emerged as the most vocal advocate of the president's mission to Mars – is Bob Zubrin.” Apocalyptic kooks? Go to a conference of the Mars Society—the organization established and led by Zubrin—and you’ll find plenty of amateur astronomers, and probably some Babylon 5 fans (although these days probably more fans of Battlestar Galactica or Stargate Atlantis). But “apocalyptic kooks”? Not so much.

Wallace-Wells does it again in the next paragraph, writing about Zubrin: “And in 1996, he published a wacky text, The Case for Mars, detailing his plans for setting up a civilization on the planet.” Wacky? Wallace-Wells makes little attempt to explain why he thinks the book is “wacky” other than a quote from the book: “Do we choose to make the efforts required to continue as the vanguard of human progress, a people of the future? Or will we allow ourselves to be a people of the past, one whose accomplishments are celebrated only in museums?” That doesn’t seem so wacky: all he asks is whether our glory days are ahead of us or behind us, a common theme. Even Wallace-Wells concedes that, “astonishingly”, the book became a bestseller, which suggests that maybe the book wasn’t so wacky—or maybe there are just a whole bunch of apocalyptic kooks out there.

Go to a conference of the Mars Society and you’ll find plenty of amateur astronomers, and probably some Babylon 5 fans. But “apocalyptic kooks”? Not so much.

These passages stand out because, by and large, Wallace-Wells tries to be fair-minded when discussing Mars exploration. The problem with the article in general is that he is a little over his head when writing about the topic, something that would not be obvious to the general public but is much clearer to someone with some familiarity with the subject. The benefits of different insights that an outsider brings are overwhelmed by a fixation on Mars, the cost and schedule of its exploration, and the errors that creep into the article because of the author’s lack of sophistication on the subject.

So should space advocates care about this article? One of the problems NASA faces in winning support for the Vision for Space Exploration over the long term is reaching out to the general public and explaining why sending humans back to the Moon and on to Mars is so important. Unfortunately, this article likely won’t do much to win the hearts and minds of the public. But then, most people who read Rolling Stone are more interested in—and more likely to read about—the emancipation of Mimi than the exploration of Mars.