Friday, December 5, 2014

First Step to Mars?

My Facebook and Twitter feeds are currently flooded with news of this morning’s flight of the Orion space capsule, echoing NASA’s claim that this is the “first step on the journey to Mars.”

Baloney. That claim, and the whole propaganda campaign that it’s a part of, constitutes outright fraud.

Sure, there’s a chance that someday a version of the same space capsule will play some role in carrying people to Mars. I’d put the chance below 5%, but who knows? It could happen.

The claim is still fraudulent, because NASA has no plans for most of the remaining steps to Mars:
  • The Orion capsule is far too small for a months-long mission. You can find drawings on the internet of proposed larger modules that Orion could attach to, but they’re just drawings. 
  • The Orion capsule can’t actually land on Mars. In fact, no technology that NASA has ever developed is capable of landing humans on Mars. NASA has some ideas on how to do it, but it’s not clear whether any of these ideas will even work.
  • There is no consensus on what risk level would be acceptable for a human Mars mission. Is NASA willing to send people on a one-way suicide trip? If not, it also needs to develop a system for getting people back off the Martian surface (not easy!). To increase the chance of survival above 50%, even with reasonably reliable spacecraft, NASA will have to deal with the poorly understood hazards of radiation, long-term weightlessness, and human psychology. Matching the 98% success rate of Space Shuttle missions is completely out of the question for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, even if NASA solves all these problems and actually takes all these further steps to Mars, the Orion capsule will not have been the first step. It is merely another incremental advance, adding to the accomplishments of Mariner, Viking, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, Curiosity, ISS, Mir, Salyut, Skylab, Apollo, Soyuz, Gemini, Mercury, and Vostok.

The “first step to Mars” claim is fraudulent not only in its promises, but also in its intent. The reason NASA uses this language is because it knows that an honest one-line explanation of the Orion space capsule (“slightly larger version of Apollo with no definite destination”) wouldn’t grab headlines and generate the public support that it needs to maintain its funding levels.

Even my well-meaning colleagues who are repeating the “first step to Mars” slogan will usually admit, when pressed, that NASA’s robotic science missions are more important than its human space flight efforts. But, these folks argue, NASA has to keep doing human space flight because otherwise the public—and Congress—would lose interest in space, and funding for the science missions would dry up. And, they continue, human space flight gets kids interested in science, which is always a good thing.

I know I’ll be called a cynic for writing this essay, but to me it’s the attitude I’ve just described that seems cynical. Why can’t we trust the public by telling them the straight truth about what NASA is and isn’t doing? Misleading people is not only morally wrong—it’s also a bad strategy over the long term, because people will eventually stop believing what you say. Skepticism toward scientists is already at epidemic levels in the U.S., and NASA’s credibility, in particular, has plummeted during the Space Shuttle era. Making empty promises about future Mars missions will only hurt this credibility further, whatever cheering it might stimulate today.