NASA is circumspect about SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s latest bid to send crewed missions to Mars by 2024 — more than a decade ahead of what the American agency plans.
During his 43-minute speech in Adelaide on Friday, the South African-born tech billionaire said he wanted crews on Mars in just 7 years time, in 2024, with the first cargo flights in 2022.
It is a different concept to the mid 2030s plan being pursued by NASA.
Musk wants to land two cargo ships on Mars in 2022 which would identify any available water, and any hazards that could impair human settlement.
The 2022 cargo mission would also put in place power, mining, and life-support infrastructure for future flights.
In 2024 two crew ships would carry the first humans to Mars while two cargo vessels would bring more equipment and supplies. That second mission would set up a rocket fuel production plant and begin a colony base for later expansion and colonisation of the planet.
The ability to make rocket fuel on Mars is vital both for return journeys from the planet and for local needs. Musk plans to achieved this by harvesting carbon dioxide from the Mars atmosphere and available water to create methane and oxygen.
His speech on Friday ignored what is a key factor in NASA’s approach. NASA says humankind first needs to learn to live in space entirely independently of contact with Earth before going to Mars. In fact this is necessary for ventures beyond the moon. It means troubleshooting problems on the spot.
Unlike the Apollo, missions to the Moon, there would be no umbilical cord to Planet Earth, and no ready help when you say: “Houston, we have a problem”.
In an interview with The Australian late last year, the man leading NASA’s charge to the red planet, Jason Crusan, said travelling to Mars meant breaking dependence on the logistics chain of supply and resupply, available to near-Earth missions, and dependence on people on the ground. You can listen to Chris Griffith’s interview with Jason Crusan here.
Crusan, the director of advanced exploration systems at NASA, said this involved not only making rocket propellant on Mars, but growing food, recycling human waste and water, dealing with health problems, conducting medical operations, repairing machines, building power infrastructure — everything.
Sometimes Mars is incredibly far from Earth. As independent planets hurtling around the Sun at different speeds, the distance between Earth and Mars varies wildly from 54 million km to about 401 million km, when the two planets are on opposite sides of the Sun.
Mars is far from being a near neighbour at that time. In fact the maximum distance between Earth and Mars is 2.6 times the Earth-Sun distance.
So those on Mars will experience long periods of isolation and self sustainability from Earth is necessary. Anyone travelling there would for years at a minimum.
Crusan said NASA’s plan was not to go directly to Mars. Journeying would involve missions to either or both our moon and Mars’ moons, notably the near moon Phobos. “We need to learn how to operate away from the comfort of Earth. We don’t have an opportunity to learn that if we go straight to Mars.”
Equipment for Mars initially could be tested on the International Space Station, but the big tests must happen farther afield.
“We’re going to demonstrate operations far away from Earth. We want to demonstrate the propulsion systems we have.”
That might mean building a habitat on the Moon where NASA and its astronauts could hone the arts of surviving.
Crusan said NASA’s final journey to Mars might be launched from Phobos. “If you go to the surface of Phobos, 65 per cent of the sky is Mars. It also blocks over 30 per cent of the radiation environment.
“Scientists believe Phobos is made up of 20 per cent water as well. If there is a large concentration of water around Phobos, we could harvest the water there and make rocket fuel. That may fundamentally change how we land on the surface of Mars.”
Phobos would be a giant refuelling centre for Mars in the sky.
NASA proposes these missions take place in the 2020s before the final Mars assault in the 2030s.
Musk’s is a more direct option, but not so detailed.