By Benjamin Vermette
President Trump finances NASA – and its journey to Mars
“Now this nation is ready to be the first in space once again. Today we’re taking the initials steps toward a bald and bright new future for American space flight.”
A black and white image of a young, talented, ambitious, poignant and confident John F. Kennedy may come to mind while reading this passage. It must however be admitted that these words were pronounced by President Donald J. Trump on March 21, 2017.
Nevertheless — and just like Kennedy’s vision for NASA in the early 1960s — Trump doesn’t seem to get NASA just right. Indeed, NASA should be focused on its core mission, which consists of “human space exploration, space science and technology […] and jobs also,” as President Trump mentioned, but one must always bear in mind that NASA, alongside NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), is responsible for a major part of all the Earth science going on.
NASA monitors temperatures; it studies Earth’s climate and the quality and composition of the atmosphere and of the oceans; it helps farmers all around the world as they benefit from its high-end satellites gathering data from the soil; it helps predict natural catastrophes and thus helps saving lives… Briefly, NASA isn’t just about space, about Mars and about the stars: it’s also about air, about water and about dirt.
March 21st saw President Trump sign a bill authorizing a $19.5-billion budget for NASA in 2017, which is about $300-million more than the 2016 budget under the Obama administration, but 0.03 per cent less if you consider the budget as a percentage of the total federal budget. In other words, this means that the Trump administration supports NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Lockheed Martin’s Orion program, both destined to mark America’s way to Mars. Also, note that the bill didn’t cut into NASA’s Earth science budget, but according to Sarah Kaplan of the Washington Post, it should see a 5 per cent decrease in the near future.
The Space Launch System is NASA’s replacement for the Space Shuttle (which in turn was known as the Space Transportation System, or STS). More precisely, it will be America’s next fleet of more powerful rockets that are being built by engineers who know that they must eventually be able to transport humans to Mars. In height, each rocket will be about 40 feet shorter than the Saturn V rocket — the one that sent men to the Moon in the late 60s and early 70s — but when comparing brute force, it is quite impossible to deny that the SLS will be much stronger: it will be capable of lifting more than 173 tons of payload into orbit, whereas the Saturn V could barely reach the sky with 150 tons of material in the backseat.
Ok, so Trump finances a trip to Mars — and a very expensive one at that, because I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone when I say SLS won’t be cheap — while a bunch of private space companies are trying to make their own way to the red planet, but in a particularly less extravagant manner. Wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? Two parties competing to be the first one on an alien celestial body … I think we have the new space race right here my friends!
If you find yourself mildly shocked with the enthusiasm I displayed in my last sentence, rest assured that I do not wish a second Cold War or any of the circumstances it might involve. But the Space Race — apart from making everyone go nuts because they feared a nuclear warhead or a laser coming down from the heavens — grew the government’s interest in space exploration, and this is the aspect I am interested in.
With private companies like SpaceX motivating government agencies like NASA to push harder toward Mars, there should be no fear for the bad uses of space; in fact, there should only be hope as both sectors — the private and the public — are competitively working hand-in-hand to reach the planet that made (and still makes) humanity dream for centuries.
Now that we’ve got this straight, it must be said that, before even thinking of getting to Mars, the companies must reach the Moon once again. SLS’s first flight is scheduled in 2018, when an uncrewed Orion spacecraft will be attached to the newly built rocket in order to make its way into lunar orbit before coming back to Earth.
As for a first crewed mission, 2021 was originally on SLS’s schedule. However, with a new president and with SpaceX announcing it wants to land two humans on the Moon, NASA amended its schedule in order to have the first astronauts fly on SLS in 2019 rather than 2021. Proof that the new space race actually motivates the government!
SpaceX to go to the Moon in this decade!
You read it correctly! SpaceX announced in late February that two private citizens approached them for a pair of tickets to the Moon. The citizens already paid a substantial amount of money and are scheduled to begin their training later this year.
In its statement, SpaceX took a moment to thank NASA “without whom this would not be possible.” In fact, NASA is partly responsible for SpaceX’s success, as it is they who funded the development of SpaceX’s Dragon 2 spacecraft through its Commercial Crew Program, and as it is they who will rely on Elon Musk’s company to transport crew to and from the ISS in the near future. Voilà! There’s the proof that these competitors work hand-in-hand.
But is it easier said than done? To send humans back on the Moon, SpaceX will need to use its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is scheduled to fly for the first time later this year.
Yes, the Falcon Heavy will be a lot smaller than SLS — about 130 feet shorter. And it will also be a lot less powerful: At launch, SLS will provide roughly 7,500 kilo Newtons (kN) more thrust than the Falcon Heavy; for comparison, 7,500 kN is the force produced by about 45 F/A-18 Hornets with full afterburners on. But it’s also much cheaper, and that is SpaceX’s forte.
According to NASA, a single SLS launch will cost between $500-million and $1-billion, whereas the Falcon Heavy only costs $90-million per launch, hence the popular saying that SpaceX (and the private sector in general) is a lot cheaper. And since everything these days is about money, some even say SpaceX has more chances to get to the Moon — and eventually to Mars — than NASA because of this important advantage.
Moreover, NASA’s SLS program is already $10-billion over budget, and this may be the very reason why it’s still alive. Indeed, who would want to cancel a program that is sooooo over budget? Perhaps the reason Trump and the Senate want SLS to succeed so badly is because they are already too invested in it now, and are far passed the ‘point of no return.’
However, the SLS isn’t just a money pit as the program has one big advantage when compared to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy: safety. The reason is simple. The SLS is not the fruit of a visionary, determined, and risk-taking billionaire entrepreneur’s utopian desires (like the Falcon Heavy is). No, the SLS is a product of bureaucracy, and that means the risks must be minimized for the sake of NASA’s survival.
It is no hazard that Musk wants to send humans on the Moon by 2018 and on Mars by 2020 (which will eventually lead to a million-person colony on Mars by 2060 http://espritdecorps.ca/from-sky-to-space/spacex-is-going-to-mars), while NASA aims for a crewed mission to the red planet for no earlier than the 2030s. Again, for SpaceX’s first missions to Mars, “the risk of fatality will be high,” Musk admits, whereas for NASA’s, “the first consideration is crew safety.”
It is thus the old vs. the young, the conservative vs. the daring, the bureaucrat vs. the entrepreneur, NASA vs. Elon Musk. Who will win? Will the first person on Mars be a NASA or a SpaceX astronaut?
In my personal opinion, the winner doesn’t really matter: we need to see this new space race not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. Consequently, the most important thing we need to extract from it is the fruitful cooperation between both public and private sectors. One has more experience while the other has more bravado. And let me tell you that in order to travel the 70 million-kilometre unpaved route of radiation and emptiness that separates Earth from Mars, you need both of these characteristics.
Although the last space race was about the USSR or the United States, getting to Mars is a bit more complicated than going to the Moon, hence this new space race being about NASA and SpaceX, the public and the private. Here, cooperation is key if humans want to succeed in becoming multiplanetary.