Fifty years after Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, the scientific community is on the verge of another breakthrough – sending people to Mars.
Three reasons to explore Mars
From H. G. Wells in the late 18-hundreds to Elon Musk in the early 21st century, generations have been fascinated by Mars, Earth’s little sister planet. Exploration of Mars can be seen as a perfect example of big science, with large organisations, multidisciplinary teams, big budgets, the involvement of governments, and political influence.
Historically, scholars tend to point out three reasons why Mars has been such a magnet for scientists. The first reason is the question of life on Mars.
People have long talked about possibilities of life outside of Earth, with both fictional and scientific purposes. Mars, as the closest planet, has been the main contender.
Even after it became clear that life forms on Mars would have great difficulty surviving the harsh climate, scientists admit that some life is possible under the surface.
“No one expects that such life is highly developed,” Henry Lambright points out in his book Why Mars. “Most likely it is bacterial. But even if no life at all exists now, it may have once existed when Mars apparently had a very different climate and substantial water flowed.”
The second reason is the desire to bring human life to Mars. As more private companies have been interested in colonising Mars, people can envision humans journeying to the planet. This draws public attention and propels the topic through media and fiction.
The third reason is political. Space has always attracted world powers and included matters of leadership, competition between countries, prestige and power.
Consequently, since the Cold War and the race to the Moon, the angle has shifted to Mars. As many parties are involved in the race, it has become one of the most important scientific missions of the 21st century.
NASA’s involvement in the race
As one of the world’s leaders in the race, NASA has had a long history with the Red Planet. This started in 1962 with the Mariner Programme and was followed by the Viking Programme in 1975.
The launch of Opportunity and Curiosity rovers in 2004 and 2011 respectively, brought NASA another step closer to sending people to Mars.
When space projects cost billions of dollars, even NASA has to initiate partnerships with other companies, such as Boeing and SpaceX, in order to reach their goals. Such partnerships have become an intrinsic part of space exploration.
Over the last decade, the main short-term goal for NASA has been the Crew and Cargo Programmes, which essentially means sending cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS).
SpaceX has won contracts for both programmes, yet, only cargo has been successfully transported on the SpaceX’s Dragons. The company expects to finish structural qualification tests on the crewed Dragon this year.
The future for the business
At the core of the partnership between NASA and SpaceX are competition-based contracting obligations. During the National Governors Association's Summer Meeting in 2017, Elon Musk emphasised the importance of the right contracting scheme for the development of space engineering.
“If we had a serious goal of having a base on the Moon and sending people to Mars, we got to change the way contracting is done,” said the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla.
“It is critically important that we change the contractual structure to be a competitive-commercial bid; make sure that there are at least two entities that are competing to serve NASA, and that the contracts are milestone-based with competitors.”
Such contracts stipulate milestones that the party has to reach. In the event of a party failing to reach a milestone in time, it will be fired and the remainder of the task reallocated to another company.
Such contracts create an incentive to develop necessary technologies faster, at the same time eliminating the entities that are not able to comply with the task.
SpaceX partnership with NASA
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, which was founded by Elon Musk in 2002, established their main goal to bring people to Mars. However, one should not assume that SpaceX and NASA are rivals in the race.
Quite on the contrary, representatives from NASA have confirmed that they are not competing with SpaceX.
Thomas Zurbachen, NASA's associate administrator for science said to Seeker that “if Elon Musk brought the samples in the door right now I'd throw him a party out of my own money.”
In a popular podcast on space and science, StarTalk, NASA's former chief scientist, Dr. Ellen Stofan, pointed out their involvement in the research behind landing.
“We have a partnership with SpaceX to help to land one of their Dragon capsules on Mars. And I am excited because they have done a lot of work on entry, descent and landing that will hopefully make it able for us to land humans sooner.”
What Dr. Stofan is referring here is that problem of landing a spacecraft on Mars. Due to the thin atmosphere on Mars, entry, descent and landing (EDL) becomes one of the main challenges, as the spacecraft will have to slow down from around 20,000 kilometres an hour to zero in only seven minutes.
As part of the cooperation, in 2014 SpaceX and NASA have entered into a commercial collaborations agreement, which allows the parties to share and use research and developments in respect to human space exploration programmes. This agreement has been a major success and has moved both parties forward.
“Through our partnership with SpaceX, we're gaining access to extraordinary real-world test data about advanced rocket-stage design and retropropulsion," said Michael Gazarik, a former associate administrator for space technology at NASA.
“By working with SpaceX and imaging their great technology, we're saving the taxpayer millions of dollars we'd otherwise have to spend to develop test rockets and flights in-house.”
The future of the partnership
Unfortunately, SpaceX’s Red Dragon mission was seized in 2017. The mission was meant to use supersonic retropropulsion for landing, and provide the optimal solution for entry, descent and landing.
However, Elon Musk reassured that the team is working on the better and safer solution. In this light, the partnership between NASA and SpaceX still continue. NASA is still interested in finding a solution for landing, and while it does not have the funding for it, SpaceX appears to be a perfect partner.
We’re available to talk to Elon when he’s ready to talk to us,” Jim Green, the head of NASA’s planetary science division, said in an interview with Spaceflight Now.
“It’s really up to him. Through the Space Act Agreement, we’d agreed to navigate to Mars, get him to the top of the atmosphere, and then it was up to him to land.”
The rivalry between entrepreneurial giants
Apart from Elon Musk, there are other private actors participating in the race, such as Blue Origin. Even though Jeff Bezos’ space exploration company, Blue Origin, was founded in 2000, it has only recently emerged in the picture of space exploration.
The two companies can hardly be regarded as rivals. First of all, Blue Origin main focus has been on space tourism and selling rockets to other companies, while exploration of space and Mars is only part of the larger agenda.
Secondly, Blue Origin still seems like Jeff Bezos’ secondary mission, with lesser production capacity and the team of around 1 000 compared to SpaceX’s 7 000.
Andy Lambert, SpaceX’s vice president of production, told CNBC, “We have the capacity of one [engine] a day. We flex the production dependent on the needs. Currently we are producing a vehicle about every fourteen days.”
Another entrepreneur who is actively involved in space is Richard Branson. However, much like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic focuses on profitable space flights, selling tickets for $250 000 each.
Virgin Galactic’s CEO has admitted that he is more interested in exploring the space for the benefit of the earth, while Elon Musk is “fixated on Mars”.
Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut talking on a podcast earlier this years has said that it is Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who will propel the next step in the space engineering and explorations.
“Here are two guys who are visionaries and who are willing to commit their resources, their personal and influential resources, to go ahead and do exploration. That’s never been done before by commercial companies,” Chiao said.
As Elon Musk himself says, competition brings the best results. The race to Mars is the ideal scenario where several powerful entities work in the same direction.
Geopolitics is at stake
Henry Lambright correctly pointed out, “in some ways, the political problems were greater than those that were technical.” It has become clear that the race to Mars has grown into an international political issue.
It should not be forgotten that Russia, Germany, Japan and China are in the race as well. Moreover, comparing to the U.S. and European Union, Russia and China might be even in the winning position.
Tough regulations, opposition to nuclear power in the U.S., and the focus on renewable energy in Europe give Russia and China a pole position. At the same time, NASA is feeling pressure with the Crew Programme, as they still use Russian rockets to fly astronauts to the ISS.
Soyuz rockets have been the only transport provider for astronauts since 2011. The contracts with Russia expires by the end of 2018, and so it is very important that SpaceX or Boeing finish their crew spacecraft by then.
Furthermore, just recently Rosatom, a Russian state corporation in nuclear energy, has mentioned that this year they will test a nuclear engine prototype for potentially bringing the spacecraft to Mars.
It is quite possible that while all the eyes are glued to the race between big names and NASA, the Russian government may accomplish a breakthrough similar to the Soviet Union flight of Yuri Gagarin in 1961.
In any case, the race enhances research and scientific discoveries in space engineering to the benefit of all. Yet, the party that will bring people to Mars first will be the winner in the eyes of the public.
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