A New Priority for NASA

By IonMars June 10, 2014

 During the past two decades the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has promulgated long range plans for the human exploration of Mars.  Since 1988 a series of seven “studies”, “Reference Missions”, and “Reference Architectures” preceded the current document that addresses NASA’s concepts of how humans could explore Mars.  The latest in this series of updates is called the 20007 Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0 (1) with additional materials published in 2009(2). In this article it will be called DRA5A.  This document provides a “common framework for future planning of systems concepts, technology development, and operational testing.”  A Mars pioneer might consider this document the closest we can get to a NASA plan for Mars GoalsMars.

One of the first steps in planning is to lay out a set of broad goals that the authors intend to accomplish in the long run.  All other objectives and detailed activities are to carry out these goals.  Analyzing these goals should allow us to understand what activities are most important and which ones are given the highest priority. The side-panel  provides a brief statement of these goals.

 Reading these stated goals and objectives, what would a Mars Pioneer have to say about them?  First he would say “good job!”  These scientific goals are clear and well stated and I can understand where you coming from.  Second, he would say that a new ordering of these priorities may be called for.

The role that NASA presently perceives for human beings in Mars exploration is well spelled out in the DRA5A introductory section entitled Interpreting planetary-scale geologic processes using Human Exploration.  This section states that “A human mission might allow for greater access to (geologic) samples that a robotic rover might not get to, and the capacity for real-time analysis and (human) decision-making would ensure that the samples that were obtained would be the optimal samples that are available.”  In other words, Human exploration of Mars may be justified because a human being could do a better job of Science than a robot.

The document goes on to declare “human explorers would also have greater access to the near-surface of Mars, which would yield insights into climate and surface evolution, and potentially, life.  Humans would be able to navigate more effectively through blocky ejecta deposits that would provide samples that are excavated from great depth and provide a window into the deeper subsurface.  Humans could also trench in dozens of targeted locations and operate sophisticated drilling equipment that could drill to a depth of 500 to 1000 meters below the surface…” A Martian pioneer would have no disagreement with these stated human capabilities.

In regard to climate studies, Section of DRA5A identified “two atmospheric/climate missions … to the north polar dome for deep drilling to define the more site-specific, human-enabled mission activities that would be necessary to sample the critical volatile records that are contained within the polar ice caps.”  Thus NASA also sees a need for humans to carry out scientific investigations for climate studies.  In pursuing the number one goal, the search for life,Astronaut_Schmitt NASA also sees a requirement for humans to conduct drilling operations where subsurface life could exist or could have existed in the past.  Mars pioneers would gladly help NASA to carry out these investigations.

The fourth goal, preparing for eventual human habitation, is where a Mars pioneer might like to see a change of priorities.  It is understood that NASA, a federal agency, must follow directives of the President and must accept the budgetary restrictions that are laid out by Congress. Thus NASA is often confronted with conflicting demands and must choose their forward path carefully among a minefield pf conflicting aspirations.  Thus the objective that says: “conduct cost and/or cost reduction technology and infrastructure demonstrations in transit to, at, or on the surface of Mars” reflects a conservative concern about risks, rewards, and expenses in going to Mars.  Such a conservative approach is understandable because both the President and the Congress must reflect the will of the people.  In the past four decades many people have been skeptical about the potential multi-billion dollar expenditures for a Mars expedition.  Another segment of the population is afraid of seeing persons die in space, a horror that gripped many who experienced the Columbia disaster, for example.

While a Mars pioneer may understand the outlook of the average person, he/she is not an average person.   A pioneer is more like a certain subset of the population that accepts high risk as an expected part of his life.  He is more like a policeman who pursues a dangerous criminal, a fireman who plunges into a burning building, or a well-trained soldier.  These are people who are willing to face the risk of death to do their job.  Such a person doesn’t ask for medals or special favors but he does demand from his sponsors and his leaders their complete and unreserved commitment to the mission that he/she will carry out.  If a manned Mars mission is actually to be carried out, there must be a greater acceptance pf risk and a greater commitment to the mission of the explorers and colonists.

A person could believe that a consensus is forming to carry out a manned mission to Mars and that sponsors and leaders will be coming forth.  At the present time there is a groundswell of new enthusiasm and expectation surrounding the possible colonization of Mars.  After thirtySpaceX Rocket years of lower budgets for space exploration and little follow-through on start-up projects, what has changed?  Two things have changed.  The first is that a man by the name of Elon Musk has appeared3.  He is a billionaire who has created the company SpaceX with the avowed purpose of building a rocket that will take us to Mars3.  Starting with a small project to develop a new rocket engine, he successfully built a rocket that became the first by a private company to achieve orbit.  Then he built a spacecraft that was the first privately developed craft to deliver a payload to the International Space Station.  Then he produced a new enlarged version of his rocket called Falcon v1.1.  His company successfully competed in the business of launching satellites.  Now he is developing a version of the rocket, F9R, to have landing legs and to be reusable.  He is also developing a very large rocket engine, Raptor, which is expected to have 1 million lb. of thrust.  A 9-engine rocket will be built with the purpose of carrying a “Mars Colonial Transporter” to you-know-where.  Mr. Musk started with a vision, he succeeded in a step-wise development of new technologies, he employed his money to ensure that each development step succeeded, and he never wavered from his long rage goal.  He has credibility.  So a Mars pioneer could reasonably believe that if NASA doesn’t support him sufficiently, Elon will.

Attitudes may also be changing for other reasons. For a long time NASA has been supported by certain influential Senators who represent States that have facilities to build, test, or launch large rockets.  But new concerns have arisen that other nations are developing their own capabilities to launch large rockets. Europe has developed the Arriane family of launch vehicles4 and Russia has a number of different rockets, some of which supply the International Space Station5 (because the US no longer has the capability).  India has developed a capability for launching polar satellites6.   Japan is also developing its own ability to launch satellites7.  In addition, China recently landed a spacecraft on the surface of the moon8   

NASA has been the most successful agency in the world to land spacecraft on Mars and to explore its surface.  It would be a thorn in the pride of the US to see any other nation become a serious competitor to plant their flag on the Red Planet.  It is a notable fact that the land area of Mars (100 percent of the surface) is nearly equal to the total land area of Earth. These concerns may translate into a wider base of political support for a Mars mission.Long March IIF rocket

Because of a changing political climate, a Mars pioneer might be pretty sure that he will be sponsored and transported to the Red Planet along with his gear.  (He just doesn’t know what logo will be splashed on the spacecraft that carries him.)  If this pioneer had a role in specifying the goals in the NASA Design Reference Architecture, what changes might occur?

First of all, the fourth goal of the DRA5A, preparation for human activity, would become goal number one.  A Mars pioneer might say: “the purpose of robotic space exploration is to learn about space but the purpose of human space exploration is to learn about humans in space.”  In other words, human presence in space is its own justification.  Once there is a commitment to a Mars expedition, either for exploration or colonization, there must be complete dedication to their support.  This includes pre-mission planning, surface activity, and post-colonization.

Second, Science should be employed to support the pioneer as the highest priority rather than the other way around.  This will allow the Pioneer to support Science in a big way, but at a later time.  A pioneer will require a wide range of equipment, technical methods and material resources to survive.  After the means of survival have been well developed and assured, then more extensive scientific experiments can proceed.  An example of how this new priority would affect the plan is in the selection of landing sites.  DRA5A addresses the selection of landing sites for the first three human exploration missions, a series of trips that would require ten years or more to accomplish.  Currently, these sites would be chosen on the basis of their potential scientific interest.  A pioneer, on the other hand, will want a landing ellipse that is near a large source of water, that is close to firm ground for a habitat and structures, and that has a convenient source of building stone.  If possible, he would like to be close to a natural deposit of methane.

The needs of a Mars pioneer imply a considerable effort to find a suitable landing site before the human mission begins.  This means a different set of activities that should precede the first colonists to Mars.  The first priority would be finding water in substantial quantities; which may be glaciers or high concentrations of water in the cryosphjere.  Current thinking is that a water/regolith layer 2.3 to 12.8 km thick covers much or the planet9.  We have found water in the concentration of two percent in just the first meter of soil but no measurements have been taken at greater depths10.  If we could find 30 percent water at less than 100 meters depth we would have a large source.   However, Training For Marsa drilling expedition would be difficult for a robot to perform, so a manned expedition may be required to scout for subsurface water (ironically.) 

A second large source of water could be a glacier.  The composition of a glacier is likely to be greater than 50 percent water but also a large portion of regolith dust that accumulates over millions of years, especially after a planet-wide dust storm.  A glacier could be mined for water but the exact process needs to be planned out in advance.

Most plans for Mars include the production of CH4 as a fuel; this is the in-situ resource utilization  (ISRU) approach10.  Considerable savings can be achieved by producing methane to refuel a large rocket for a return trip to Earth.  The large rocket planned by SpaceX, for example, will be propelled by CH4 combustion.  The production of methane is to be achieved by the Sabatier process, whereby the inputs are H2 from Earth and CO2 from the Mars atmosphere. The outputs are CH4 and O2, two crucial ingredients for a Mars colony.  While this process has been used to produce water for the ISS crew12, there is not a machine in existence that is Mars-ready and that can process large quantities of CH4 for fuel.  Development of this machinery should be given a high priority. 

Even when the Sabatier process is well developed for Mars application, it will require considerable effort and expense to ensure its success.   If a large subsurface methane deposit could be discovered, however, it would drop the expense of fuel dramatically.  It would become the basis for a methane economy on Mars, analogous to the development of an oil economy on Earth.  Unfortunately CH4 deposits are likely to be found at great depth, much greater than the depth of water, probably at 2 to 20 km.  Drilling for methane would involve much larger drilling rigs and equipment, analogous to oil drilling equipment on Earth.  It may not be practical to search for methane until the Mars settlement is well under way.  At this later time shipments of large equipment nay become feasible.  On the other hand, methane deposits could be the result of either geological processes or life processes.  The search for methane by drilling could also be the search for life on Mars.  It would be desirable to identify the tools and equipment that would be necessary for deep methane drilling at an early date.

Another area that requires more emphasis to support the Mars pioneer is to develop the equipment that can operate in the Mars environment.  Primitive road building, for example, will require front-end loaders, trucks, and rock breaking equipment.  Some of the adaptations that are required are seals that can function in near-outer-space vacuum and hydraulic systems that can operate in cryospheric temperatures (typically minus 60 degrees C).  For construction we will need equipment to cut building locks out of basalt, a type of rock that is common on Mars.   For transport we will need “roadsters” that can navigate primitive roads between a habitat and nearby locations on a daily basis.  Prototypes of these machines are needed at an early date.

Surprisingly, one of the most basic functions that has not yet been developed for Mars is the ability to grow food in situ.  It is commonly assumed that growing food is not that difficult and that our agricultural technology will simply be transferred to Mars. This is not true.  Some experiments have been conducted on the ISS but success is somewhat limited to a few species such as lettuce and tomatoes.  Experiments to grow vegetables in simulated regolith have been uneven because the regolith nodules tend to cling to growing roots thereby killing them.  To support the Mars pioneer we will have to develop an agricultural capability and do it quickly, otherwise we will be looking at a huge expense to supply the colonists with basic foods.



The Mars Pioneer will look to NASA for support of his/her mission of exploration and colonization.  The agency has an unsurpassed record for research and development of systems that can function in non-Earth conditions.  This new priority will turn NASA in the direction of developing the systems and equipment that are needed for colonial survival on the Red Planet.



(1) National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2007) Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0. NASA-SP-2009-566.

(2) National Aeronautics and Space Administration Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0 Addendum (2009), NASA-SP-2009-566-ADD.

(3) ElonMusk.com, Retrieved March 5, 2014.

(4) “Arianne 5: placing the heaviest loads in orbit,” astrium.EADS.net, Retrieved March 5, 2014.

(5) “Rockets,” RussianSpaceWeb.com, Accessed March 5, 2014.

(6)  “PSLV.” isro.org, Accessed March 5, 2014.

(7)  “Epsilon Launch Vehicle Awarded Good Design Award Gold Award,” (2013) jaxa.com,  Accessed March 5, 2014.

(8) “China Space ‘Jade Rabbit’ Blasts Off,” BBC News Science and Environment, December 1, 2013.

(9) “The Martian Cryosphere,” Windows to the Universe (2012) http://www.windows2universe.org/mars/interior/Martian_cryosphere.html

(10) “Variations in subsurface water in Yellowknife Bay,” NASA.gov, http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/multimedia/pia16810.html Retrieved 6-10-2014

(11) Muscatello, A. and Sanyiago-Maldonado (2012) “Mars in Situ Resource Utilization Technology Evaluation,” http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20120001775.pdf Retrieved 6-10-2014

 (12) Jessica Nimon, “The Sabatier System: Producing Water on the Space Station,” May 12, 2011, http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/sabatier.html, Retrieved 6-10-2014.