Congress, President Fail to Embrace Musk’s Bold Plan for Mars

Last September, Elon Musk made his pitch for a bold new approach to sending people to Mars that requires substantial taxpayer supporter. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed a NASA authorizing act that maintains the slow, steady-as-she-goes status quo. The billionaire was not amused.

  • windbourne

    Trump DID embrace mars by pushing private space, while the GOP controlled CONgress was working to gut them.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    “(the entire infrastructure for life on the planet), what are you going to do?”

    Not NASA’s problem. NASA could help fund a 1/2 scale ITS (still 2xSaturn V) and use it with a paired down crew 6-12 for surface stay research. Then if someone wants to bootstrap society down the line and drive price down that would be raised privately, if not, no biggy NASA helped developed the baseline tech for ISRU and launcher for Mars that is volume ready and….landed people on Mars! It isn’t all or nothing. NASA doesn’t have to back the spawning of civilization on Mars to dip it’s feet into the water.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Meat for some good Sci-fi novels!


  • duheagle

    Some of NASA’s problems derive from politics. Many others have more to do with it being a bureaucracy that is now decades beyond its first flush of vigorous youth and increasingly fouled with barnacles and bad habits accumulated over time.

    You see SpaceX as trying to do too much with too little. I see it as doing the most it can with what it has. SpaceX’s culture is not its problem, but the reason for its success. Its compensation practices and work expectations are in no way exceptional for a tech startup.

    I’m am endlessly amused at the abject horror with which progs confront the notion of hard work. If your friend with the space company finds he is able to do well enough with a self-designed less demanding company culture, more power to him. But if I was him, I’d be keeping a close watch on my six.

    SpaceX has won a great many customers. It didn’t steal any of them any more than Blue stole most of ULA’s liquid engine business or Orbital-ATK stole the remainder of ULA’s SRB business it didn’t already have – both thefts being at A-R’s expense.

    No, hardware is not exactly like software. But both are highly complex engineered products. Moreover, both are also subject to potential failures in service even after a lot of pre-release testing, after which causes must be found and fixes developed ASAP. Elon never figured SpaceX would have a glitch-free existence.

    SpaceX has trouble-shot and corrected five loss of mission mishaps. The first two required over a year each before return to flight. The third took essentially no time as it was correctable, ironically for this discussion, via a small software mod.

    The fourth failure, and first on a Falcon 9, was more subtle than any of the Falcon 1 failures, but diagnosis, fix and RTF took only six months. The fifth failure, even more outre than the fourth, was chased, fixed and RTF-ed in four months. As one should expect from a Silicon Valley-style firm, SpaceX’s debugging skills have advanced markedly over its history.

    Blue has yet to blow up any satellite payloads because it hasn’t launched any. Something that could equally well be said of SLS at this point and with equal lack of relevance.

    SpaceX has launched 36 orbital missions with four failures. It lost a fifth payload in an on-the-ground accident. What Blue’s record will be after 36 orbital mission attempts is impossible to know. But someday we shall.

    In the meantime, Blue deserves no special consideration for its non-record. It certainly makes no sense to presumptively regard them as in any way SpaceX’s superior. Yet that is the clear implication of your comment.

    The dig about Blue using its own money is a bit much too. Blue certainly had no ideological objection to taking government money when such was available. It even got a little, here and there. But it was apparently less able to satisfy the NASA contract administrators that it was worthy of their custom than were SpaceX and others. That hardly seems to constitute a mark in Blue’s favor.

    The latest word you impart anent Blue is that the New Shepard program is proceeding, just more slowly than initially planned. Gee, just like a certain other billionaire-backed entrepreneurial space company we could both name. Only when it’s Musk’s baby, you snipe. When it’s Bezos’s, you make excuses.

    ULA’s and Blue’s long-term plans are, as you say, unlikely to distract them from short-term projects and priorities. I would agree, but would do so because both these firms are just like SpaceX in being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

    I fail to see virtually any inherent “distration quotient” attached to the notional SpaceX circumlunar mission. Said mission needs Dragon 2. SpaceX is already thoroughly asses and elbows getting that puppy ready. The only item Dragon 2 is likely to need for the Moon-ward jaunt it doesn’t have for ISS work is a stronger radio.

    Said mission also needs Falcon Heavy. Now that there’s a real media wet dream-type mission attached to that yet-to-fly beast, it would seem that Falcon Heavy’s priority at SpaceX can go nowhere but up as a result. That’s probably why Red Dragon got put back two years.

    But you bitch about FH being late and you bitch about the Moon mission that might shorten the remaining wait for it to fly. When it comes to SpaceX, pretty much, you just bitch. Blue, a company that is two years older than SpaceX and which has done orders of magnitude less to this point, you bill and coo over like it was your own instead of Jeff B.’s.

    It’s your site and you can do whatever you like – obviously. Just don’t act shocked, SHOCKED when someone calls you on what has long been patently obvious.

  • duheagle

    Be still my beating heart!

  • duheagle

    That does seem to be the plan.

  • duheagle

    Falcon Heavy, when it flies, will be vastly more available than SLS. Given its pathetic production rate, high cost and expendability, SLS isn’t capable of being redundant backup for anything. FH’s redundant backup will be New Glenn because it will also be mostly recoverable and in mass production. And NG is due to arrive not long after the first SLS test flight in any event.

  • duheagle

    Given that the Model 3 isn’t being delivered yet, I’m not impressed with yet another notional nothingburger “boycott” ginned up by cranky progs. A truly eye-watering number of these things get announced with a big splash and then disappear without a trace. Countervailing “buycotts” by conservatives are less common but a lot more impactful. Chick-fil-A and Jackie Evancho come readily to mind. If Trump supporters get the idea that progs are picking on Musk just for consorting with Trump, the Model 3 could get a heck of an unlooked for boost out of the blocks.

  • duheagle

    “Oreo space raft” – heh.

  • duheagle

    Nice sappy sentiment, there Michael. Trouble is, most of the problems, and all of the hard ones, are other people.

  • Jeff2Space

    Solar works on Mars. You just need a lot of panels. So you can solve this in a “brute force” way by throwing mass at the problem. Yes, small nuclear reactors would be nice, but are not absolutely necessary.

    Skylab used 1960’s tech. If you set aside the launch problems (i.e. MMOD shield ripping off along with one solar array and jamming another), there were only minor issues with the station itself. If followed-on by a Skylab 2 (i.e. launch the backup Skylab) much longer duration missions could have been performed to gain the experience needed.

    Agreed that it is really about economics. The technology really wasn’t holding us back at all.

    Disagree that we “need to head to the moon first”. That’s a distraction and a waste of precious resources. Conditions on Mars are so different than the moon that the hardware to land and explore will be completely different.

  • Jeff2Space

    “Intermediate steps” like building facilities on the moon are attacked because they’re quite simply not necessary for a trip to Mars. The moon is completely different than Mars, so hardware developed for the moon just won’t work on Mars (i.e. landers, suits, and etc.).

  • windbourne

    I used to think the moon was a mistake until I realized several things:
    1) the moon lowers space costs. Not a little, but a lot. To be there requires a number of launches. Ideally, 1 / month.
    2) numerous nations want on the moon. They will gladly pay to get there.
    3) as long as NASA is not focused on the moon, but is instead a paying customer, it would be possible for them to do both.

  • Douglas Messier

    I thought about responding point by point here, but it clearly be a waste of time.

    There’s a cult out there filled with people like you that worships Elon. It makes these discussions very difficult. Any critique that suggests any flaws in the edifice of the great Elon and the great SpaceX is met with the most personal of denunciations. Rational responses just seem to exacerbate the rage. You’re not thinking clearly here.

  • publiusr

    SLS is going to be a good rocket–and no composite tank to fail. Musk may be better off just building payloads for it instead. That could well be cheaper than BFR/ITS.

    The political realities are what they are. SLS is not going away–it uses hydrogen which is perfect for NTRs to come. Musk has a hydrogen phobia, it seems.

    Musk needs to get some of that UAE oil money and build Sea Dragon–and kick composites to the curb.

  • publiusr

    On point 8–to say there isn’t enough money for both SLS and Musk.

    Geoargia is looking at its own spaceport.

    Musk needs his own Shelby–and the recent ITS tank ruptured. Maybe they tested it to destruction anyway–but the scuttlebutt I hear is that it failed in a bad way–and the silence on that subject is deafening. Right now–SLS looks to be the better HLLV.

    Now, I think Musk needs to not target NASA SLS–but other aspects of the military. I think he could spearhead a move to remove space from the USAF–and talk about how Sea Dragon is actually cheaper than building a ballistic missile launching submarine–less parts.

    The US Government could then fund SLS to launch Mars ships, with Sea Dragon to launch weapon platforms and big dumb payloads–like Mars fuel.

    I think that any Seaport towns would get involved–and UAE seems to have all that oil money. Musk needs to kick composites to the curb–and push for Sea Dragon.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    “SLS is going to be a good rocket”

    What brand of weegee board are you divining that from?

  • Howard Carter

    The technology is there (Maybe!) for a “flags and footprints” mission, but not to stay. We don’t really understand what low and zero gravity does to the human body. We have radiation, and we need a lot better life support systems. Cislunar space allows us to work through some of those issues, with lower costs and time of flights.

  • Howard Carter

    yes…I remain totally unconvinced of the economics of Mars. Musk is pushing at the need for us to be an off Earth species, and I agree that long term we need to be, but there’s no way to justify the money mars will cost yet

  • windbourne

    how well do those work during one of mars dust storms?

  • duheagle

    You are, without doubt, one of the finest engineering minds of the mid-20th Century.

  • duheagle

    World-class deflection there.

  • duheagle

    You’re nothing if not relentless in promoting antique materials and fabrication technologies for spacecraft. Why not go the whole steampunk nine yards? Riveted sheet iron for structure. Round brass analog gauges and knife switches with Bakelite bases and solid copper bus bars at the crew stations. Engine-turned brass for the consoles.

    You keep trying to make some non-existent disaster out of the ITS LOX tank prototype pressure test. Of course it was a test to destruction. SpaceX said so in advance. That’s what one does with engineering prototypes. It’s also why SpaceX did it on a crewless barge at sea. All the previous testing of the tank – which SpaceX did not intend to end in its destruction – was done earlier, indoors, on land.

    The “scuttlebutt” to which you refer is a single post by some doofus who claims to see things that are plainly not visible in a photo of the tank’s post-test remains piled behind some big crates on a dock. Really impeccable source, that.

    Give it up, Dude. You can badmouth SpaceX from now ’til doomsday. All it’s going to get you, as time goes by, is laughed at.

  • Douglas Messier

    It’s somebody’s problem other than Musk’s. H really wants someone else to step up and pay for it.

  • Douglas Messier

    >Give it up, Dude. You can badmouth SpaceX from now ’til doomsday. All it’s going to get you, as time goes by, is laughed at.

    Thou shalt not criticize Elon thy God!

    So says I, Dude Beagle Man!

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    No shit Batman. Delta Airlines doesn’t want to pay to build hotels either.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    You often come across as petty and envious. Bigger point is that every time i’ve seen people dig in their heels and criticize SpaceX for not being able to do something they end up looking foolish a few years later.

  • Douglas Messier

    SpaceX’s ability to do things is not something I generally question. They’ve done amazing things. That’s not really the main issue.

  • Douglas Messier

    Well put, SnarkRiddler. Well put. The point is it’s all the hidden costs not mentioned in Elon’s Mars plans that will fall on taxpayers. Not all of them, but a lot.

  • Jeff2Space

    Dragging the goalposts much? I was talking about performing a Mars mission, not setting up a “permanent” base there.

    Silly argument. We won’t know what Mars gravity does to the human body until we go there.

    Radiation we know how to handle (you need shielding like water around your sleeping quarters and the like).

    You can do an exploration style mission without a “closed loop” life support system. Again, Skylab did just fine. You just carry enough consumables with you for the duration of the mission. The advantage there is you don’t have to worry about complex recycling systems breaking down.

    ISS allows us to test everything we need for the trip there and back. The moon is so different from Mars that landing missions there are a distraction that just eats up money without actually teaching us what Mars will be like. If we want to go to Mars, then we should go to Mars.

  • Jeff2Space

    How does spending money on lunar missions “lower space costs”?

  • windbourne

    1) To lower the costs of the FH, BFR, and/or NG , they need to launch monthly, if not more. Both are too big for taking normal loads up. So, the ONLY way that both will get monthly or more launches, is via multiple space stations and/or a lunar base.

    2) According to Bigelow, a number of nations WANT to be on the moon. IOW, he says that they will pay to go there. Of course, they will need time in space just to get used to it. That means at least one LEO space station, if not multiple. More importantly, that means that multiple nations will be contributing towards getting us and keeping us in space.

    3) BFR is too big for LEO type operations, other than a BA-4200. WAY TOO BIG.
    As such, they will either accept 6-9 months of no launches, OR if we have a lunar base, then it will be used to send increasingly cheaper and bigger stuff.

    And being on the moon will lower the costs of equipment for mars.

  • duheagle

    Elon isn’t God or Allah or even Cthulhu. I leave the worship of mere human beings to progressives as they seem the main practitioners of such these days. What Elon Musk is is the Usain Bolt of space technology – namely, the fastest man in the world.

    But he’s hardly beyond criticism – I have long winced at his embrace of Global Warming quackery, for example. But most of the so-called criticisms flung at his space-related efforts are dim-witted in the extreme. The line of crap publiusr is trying to peddle about the ITS propellant tank is a lamentably typical example.

  • duheagle

    He’s made it plain he intends to handle the transportation end of things. He assumes, and not without good reason, that once people and goods can get to Mars in quantity, others will step up to invent and build out the follow-on infrastructure. That’s pretty much how America developed over the last three centuries. I’m sure this vision does chap the behinds of anal-retentive urban planner types. That’s one of its appeals to me, frankly.

  • duheagle

    It’s far from obvious, at this early juncture, that any of such costs will be picked up by taxpayers. Not that I would particularly care were it to be otherwise. Backing Musk’s Mars vision would be a much better use of public funds than is the current, and on-going NASA faux-Mars program.

  • Douglas Messier

    Global warming quakery?

    Global warming is real. It’s a serious problem. Most of those who think it’s fake can’t get past their right-wing ideology to look at the evidence clearly.

  • Jeff2Space

    Falcon Heavy will be flying fairly routinely, putting heavy GEO comsats into orbit. The last comsat launch expended the Falcon 9 first stage because it was so heavy. Once Falcon Heavy starts flying they’ll use it for exactly such a mission because they can recover both boosters and the core (first) stage and reuse them all.

    New Glenn will no doubt be used similarly. When you recover your (quite large and expensive) first stage, you can afford to use it on missions that don’t max out the payload.

    Yes, a number of nations want to be on the moon. But they won’t be unless the funding materializes (Russia is especially in dire straights with its manned space funding). The US will have to decide between the moon and Mars. We can’t afford to commit to both, especially with ISS and SLS/Orion sucking up much of the budget.

    The SpaceX BFR is for Mars. Musk doesn’t care about the moon. Been there, done that. Someone else would have to pay him for missions to the moon, because he’s not going to self fund that.

    No, being on the moon will not lower the costs of “equipment for Mars”. Launch costs will be significant, but will not be the limiting factor. The high cost of equipment will be in the large stages needed to get there and back, the HAB, the lander, rover, and etc.

    And again, all that Mars equipment (except for the propulsion stages and HAB, which we already know how to build) will need to be purpose built for Mars conditions. Building landers, habitats, and rovers for the moon does nothing to lower the costs for the same on Mars because they will be *different* due to *different requirements*. Things that are different just aren’t the same!

  • Paul451

    Re: Solar on Mars.

    how well do those work during one of mars dust storms?

    Surprisingly well. Dust diffracts light but doesn’t reduce the overall amount significantly. Solar can handle “sky shine” nearly as well as direct light.

    (Water clouds are actually worse for solar than dust.)

    Currently Opportunity has conditions where direct sunlight is below 30% (due to dust storms), but the panel output is reduced by less than a third, rather than more than two thirds.

    There are once-in-twenty-year global storms that reduce even indirect sunlight to low levels (Spirit and Opportunity faced one in 2007, IIRC, with Opportunity particularly badly hit.) But even in those months long storms, there were only a few days that year where the panels weren’t productive, even during the middle of the storm.

    And even a nuclear reactor might have a few days a decade where it’s off-line for maintenance or because of a crappy sensor glitch.

    (Regardless of your power source, if you don’t have enough backup for a few days emergency power, you are very bad at Mars.)

  • windbourne

    Actually, the point is to have multiple sources of energy; solar ; nukes ; possibly geothermal.

  • Howard Carter

    I wasn’t moving the goalposts. I just think that we need experience in cislunar first. Yes, we could probably do an exploration style mission to Mars, but that accomplishes very little long term. Musk claims he’s focused on the long term, but he appears to want to skip steps

  • publiusr

    I’m not badmouthing space X at all–hell, I think ULA is the one trying to nix them.

    “antique materials?”

    Pressure-fed advocates are dying off unappreciated–I want to keep their contrubutions alive.

  • Jeff2Space

    Agree to disagree. You think the moon is a shortcut to Mars. I think it’s a one-way, dead-end street if the goal is really Mars.

    Things that are different, just aren’t the same.