While the aerospace community waits for February when President Obama will announce the 2011 budget, effectively setting NASA’s direction for the near future, aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin agitates for a manned mission to Mars.
On a Saturday last August just outside the nation’s capital, Dr. Robert Zubrin saw his ambitions come crashing back to Earth—or, more accurately, back to the moon. Chris McKay, a NASA astrobiologist, had just delivered a speech to the Mars Society in which he proposed a human space exploration program based around a permanent lunar base. A trip to Mars, he said, should be delayed for several decades as humanity learns to live on our closest celestial body. “I grew up with Star Trek—the original series,” McKay said, “and the slogan was ‘to boldly go.’ Going is easy… we need to boldly stay.”
As soon as McKay finished, a dozen livid conference-goers—most wearing “Mars or Bust” pins—stormed the two audience microphones at the front of the hall. First in line was Zubrin, the Mars Society’s founder and president.
“The reason we didn’t stay on the moon is because there was nothing worth staying for!” howled Zubrin, whose unkempt comb-over, baggy eyelids, and impatient bark give the impression that he rarely gets more than three hours of sleep. “The prospect for agriculture on Mars is vastly superior. After we learn to live on Mars, we can use that as practice for living on the moon!”
“It’s about colonies,” cried a squat, shaggy man, “followed by the terraform mission.”
“I think one of the biggest flaws we have is to look at Mars and think there is no deadline,” said a mustached dandy in a felt beret. “There is a deadline. We have to do this before our environment goes belly up.”
“Why don’t we leave the moon to the Japs?” proposed a debonair European.
A few hours later, Zubrin ducked out of an eight-person panel on Space Art to hold an impromptu crisis-management meeting in the aftermath of McKay’s presentation.
“If Kennedy in ’61 had said we need to be on the moon by 2000, we never would have made it,” he said in an emphatic whisper to two followers, pitching his eyebrows at sharp angles for dramatic effect. Zubrin has intense, deep-set eyes that narrow into slits when he smiles (rarely) or gets excited (constantly). “On the moon, you find out if the Aristoteles crater is this old or that old, big fucking deal. The real question is, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’”
It was the third day of the Mars Society’s Twelfth International Convention, a gathering of space geeks, engineers, and scientists (mad and otherwise), held from July 30, 2009, to August 2nd on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. This year’s conference had a particular urgency: an independent panel tasked by President Obama to assess America’s human space flight program had invited Zubrin to testify in Washington the following week. Obama’s task force, led by former Lockheed Martin Chairman and CEO Norm Augustine, was a collection of industry insiders who weren’t likely to stray far from the status quo; but Zubrin had no plans to dilute his message. As he has since the early nineties, Zubrin would advocate for a radical overhaul of NASA organized around a single Kennedy-esque goal: reach Mars in under a decade.
Indeed, Zubrin delivered his typical stump speech to the Augustine Commission, describing the central tenets of his Mars mission plan, championing the red planet as the Rosetta Stone for the truth about the prevalence and potential diversity of life in the universe, and predicting that Mars exploration would send a message to students: “Learn your science and you can be part of pioneering new worlds.” The exploration of Mars, Zubrin believes, would propel modern humanity into an age of mythic heroism. “Humans to Mars is the challenge that has been staring NASA in the face for the past forty years,” Zubrin wrote in his prepared remarks to the Commission. “It is the challenge that says to us: ‘Are you still a nation of pioneers? Do you still have the guts, and fortitude, and vision that your predecessors had—those brave men and women who took the risks to get you to where you are today? Are you still a nation whose great deeds will be celebrated in newspapers, or just in museums?’”
“On the moon, you find out if the Aristoteles crater is this old or that old, big fucking deal,” Zubrin said. “The real question is, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’”
Two months after Zubrin’s testimony, the Augustine Commission published its final report, paying good lip service to Mars as “unquestionably the most scientifically interesting destination in the inner solar system.” But it ultimately rejected Zubrin’s thesis that Mars exploration is achievable and urgent. “With existing technology and even a substantially increased budget,” the report concluded, “the attainment of even symbolic missions would demand decades of investment and carry considerable safety risk to humans… Mars is not a viable first destination beyond low-Earth orbit at this time.”
Zubrin was incensed. “The Augustine report is basically a disaster,” he said a week after its release, his firm, deliberate voice rising throughout the conversation to a shrieking crescendo. “It proposes the United States spend $100 billion over the next ten years on manned spaceflight without accomplishing anything. More money with less being required to accomplish with it. That’s nice work if you can get it; but it does nothing for the nation. It’s such an unattractive recommendation that Obama could be forgiven for deciding to cut the manned spaceflight program.”
Zubrin designed a Mars mission in which astronauts would launch directly from Earth. Unlike the NASA plan, Zubrin’s mission would be ready to go in under a decade.
Early indications are that the President won’t use Augustine’s recommendations as a pretext for grounding human missions. On December 16th, Obama met with NASA chief Charlie Bolden, partially to discuss the Commission’s findings. Afterward, a White House spokesman said that “the President confirmed his commitment to human space exploration,” and Bolden told congressmen that the President was leaning towards a $1 billion increase in NASA’s budget instead of a feared 5 percent cut. Whatever Obama eventually decides—an announcement is expected at the State of the Union address or upon the February release of the 2011 federal budget—his plan will almost certainly have more in common with Norm Augustine’s risk-averse approach than with Robert Zubrin’s dramatic appeals. As the healthcare and Afghanistan debates have shown, audacity has its limits.
Robert Zubrin lives in a world in which reality continually disappoints. He grew up during the glory years of the space program, but has matured in more modest times. “I was five when Sputnik flew,” Zubrin recalled in a 2007 Science Channel documentary, “and while to the adults Sputnik was a terrifying event, to me… it was exhilarating.” As an adolescent (Zubrin retains a round cherubic face as devoid of hard edges as an infant’s), Zubrin thrilled to the victories of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, forecasting a future in which, by the year 2000, man would explore Alpha Centauri, our neighboring solar system, a mere 4.37 light-years away. But in the early nineteen seventies, NASA shifted its focus away from manned missions and the nation turned its attention to more terrestrial concerns. Zubrin abandoned his dream of taking an active part in the space program and became a science teacher.
That job didn’t last long. “Something hit me,” Zubrin recalled, “and I said, I’m not going to accept myself doing less than what I’d dreamed of doing when I was a boy.” Zubrin went back to school, studying aeronautics, astronautics, and nuclear engineering at the University of Washington and, upon receiving his Ph.D., got a job planning interplanetary missions at Martin Marietta (a predecessor of Lockheed Martin). When the first President Bush launched the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989, Zubrin watched as NASA concocted a $450 billion plan to land humans on Mars, which would triple the size of the International Space Station and require building a massive infrastructure on the moon. The deadline: thirty years. Zubrin thought he could do better and designed a Mars mission in which astronauts would launch directly from Earth and use the orbital synchronicity of the two planets to minimize flight time. Unlike the NASA plan, Zubrin’s mission would be ready to go in under a decade.
The primary challenge to human exploration beyond the Earth-moon system has been to design a rocket that can carry enough fuel to get astronauts there and back. In his plan, Mars Direct, Zubrin sidestepped the problem by following the credo of Lewis and Clark: live off the land and travel light. Mars Direct powered a return mission from Mars to Earth with a methane-oxygen propellant derived from the Martian atmosphere. The plan was cheap—$55 billion, even after a cost-adding redesign—bold, and earned the praise of many in the space industry; but it couldn’t win over NASA. In 1996, after nearly five years advocating for the plan, Zubrin left Martin Marietta, formed his own firm, Pioneer Astronautics, and published his manifesto, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. If officialdom wouldn’t listen to him, he would find a new audience: the Mars Society, a 7,800-member organization Zubrin founded in 1998, became his government-in-exile.
Zubrin divides the history of the U.S. space program into two drastically different periods. The “Apollo mode,” from 1961 to 1973, organized NASA into a lean, almost military, unit in which a strong leader such as John F. Kennedy would pick a place, set a date, and tell the heroes and geeks at NASA, “Make it so.” Since 1974, according to Zubrin, contractors and bureaucrats have driven NASA’s agenda, forcing the agency to develop a host of technologies without a coherent plan to deploy them. The results speak for themselves. During the period in which NASA operated under the Apollo mode, the U.S. launched twenty-four men on lunar missions, landed six different crews on the moon’s surface, and inspired a generation of young boys to pursue careers in math and science. Over the last thirty-seven years, NASA hasn’t flown a single astronaut beyond low-Earth orbit, and the agency that once introduced America to John Glenn and Neil Armstrong—the closest we’ve come to Odysseus and Achilles—now recruits scientist-astronauts who resemble zany high school physics teachers in space suits.
Zubrin is a pen pusher not a fighter jock, but his belief in the fundamentally heroic nature of the space program is pure The Right Stuff. While the counterculture of the nineteen sixties fought to remake society, the young Robert Zubrin became obsessed with the giant leap for mankind—the beginning, he thought, of humanity’s ascent from Earth to space. This utopianism came not only from the heady days of the Apollo program but also from the decade’s science fiction touchstone: Star Trek. That series, in which warp drive and first contact mobilized humanity into a socialistic, explorer-state, resonates in Zubrin’s predictions for humanity’s spacefaring future. By the nineteen eighties, films like The Terminator and Blade Runner cast our sci-fi destiny as a dystopian hell, but Zubrin’s perspective had already solidified: exploring space, would, in the words of the German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, “free man from the remaining chains.”
In its eleven years, the Mars Society has succeeded in recruiting some big names—Avatar director James Cameron and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin are members in good standing—and has secured enough funding to become a quasi-research organization—the Society operates two facilities for priming potential crews for the rigors of a Mars mission, one in the barren canyonlands of Utah and one 900 miles south of the North Pole. Yet this year’s convention attracted only 195 members, down from over 700 at the Society’s inaugural event in 1998, and of the Society’s 7,800 members, only 1,200 are current on their dues. For close to two decades, Zubrin has been touting the same Mars Direct plan with the same high-flying rhetoric, and this stagnation has taken a toll on the Society faithful. During one session this year, the Society’s director of membership recommended giving out used copies of The Case for Mars and screening Mars films on Friday nights to help resurrect dwindling local chapters. “It’s a struggle,” Zubrin acknowledged, “but things happen. If someone makes a good Mars movie, it’s going to spread enthusiasm. If we stay in a rut and things go downhill, then membership tends to decline.”
For the last forty years, humanity has put off its future as a spacefaring species, a delay that Zubrin blames not on a failure of science, but on a failure of leadership.
Many of the members who still make the trip to the Society’s conventions share their leader’s dramatic inclinations, though often without his focus. The Greek owner of a small hotel in Mozambique (a founding member of the Society) led a session during this year’s convention entitled, “Space or Suicide…Yes We Can!” He proposed Martian exploration as a cure-all for mankind’s ills: “There is poverty, piracy is back, technology has stalled, theocracy is back, pandemics we all know from the media… I think space exploration is one of the solutions.” After, a conference-goer approached the speaker and told him, approvingly, that it had reminded him of Lyndon LaRouche.
In a talk entitled, “Prepare Now for the Long Stay on Mars,” another Society veteran proposed a ten-year Mars exploration and research program in which underground bases would be used for agriculture. Amenities would include a spa, a running track, and a swimming pool, all to be constructed by robots before the first humans arrived. “You might consider digging in lava tunnels,” suggested one audience member.
Chris McKay, the NASA astrobiologist who’d shaken up the conference by advocating for the moon-based training plan, was the only prominent voice of dissent, which made him seem to many in the Mars Society like a stand-in for the entire weak-willed NASA bureaucracy. McKay, however, sees his role within the Society as that of the loyal opposition. “I still think human exploration is of fundamental importance,” he explained in an email, “but, I think it important that someone like me express divergent views, otherwise the Mars Society becomes perceived as a one-person, one-point-of-view organization.”
On the final afternoon of the convention, after a talk on self-publishing Mars-themed books, Zubrin addressed a group that had gathered around a table piled with Mars Society tote bags and stacks of the Society’s glossy publication, The Mars Quarterly. The Greek hotelier—still fired up from McKay’s moon-first heresy—asked Zubrin where the astrobiologist had gone astray.
“Chris McKay is now NASA middle management,” Zubrin explained. “He has been assimilated into the hive mind. He’s lost his fire.” The statement cast a brief pall.
“They sit here and they tell us Mars is too far,” lamented the Greek.
Zubrin, the only person who was seated, lounged back in his chair and began to speak of one his heroes: Vasco da Gama. The Portuguese sailor, Zubrin said, was the first man to navigate a ship from Europe around the treacherous Cape of Good Hope and on to the riches of India. Da Gama’s return voyage took a year, during which time nearly half of his crew died. But when Da Gama arrived home, King Manuel I awarded him, his family, and his descendents the lordly title of Dom.
In Zubrin’s take, the will to explore, the desire to boldly go, flows through history from Da Gama to John Glenn to the future commander of the Mars Direct mission. For the last forty years, humanity has put off its future as a spacefaring species, a delay that Zubrin blames not on a failure of science, but on a failure of leadership. That President Obama is unlikely to be the man to reverse NASA’s tailspin and blast the space program back to its Apollo-era heights marks only a minor setback in what Zubrin sees as his inevitable victory. “We roll the dice every four years in this country and sooner or later we’re going to get a president who wants to do this,” Zubrin said. And until that day, Zubrin and the Mars Society will be the keepers of the flame, planning for a future that, in their eyes, is just the beginning.
Eric Benson and Justin Nobel’s last collaboration used citizen journalists worldwide to “mass observe” Barack Obama’s inauguration and was featured in the New York Times and In These Times. Presently, they are planning an expedition to the backwaters of northern Ontario in search of Henry Hudson’s 400-year-old remains.