To reach Mars, the U.S. will need a lit­tle help from its friends

Europe is al­ready foot­ing part of the bill. Oth­ers may hop aboard “Part­ner­ship is an im­por­tant el­e­ment of this whole en­deavor”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - Contents - −Justin Bach­man

Amid the Cold War scram­ble to best the Sovi­ets in space, NASA got all the money it needed to put as­tro­nauts on the moon. Achiev­ing the agency’s present-day goal of a Mars land­ing won’t be quite so sim­ple. NASA of­fi­cials have been coy about the to­tal pro­jected cost of the Mar­tian mis­sion, but an­a­lysts es­ti­mate that the tab could run any­where from $100 bil­lion to $1 tril­lion or more, making it in­evitable that the U.S. will need help from its space-far­ing friends to reach the red planet.

On Nov. 30, NASA of­fi­cials joined peers from the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) and Air­bus at NASA’s Plum Brook re­search sta­tion in San­dusky, Ohio, to mark an im­por­tant mile­stone in the Orion pro­gram, which will ferry as­tro­nauts be­yond the moon. The at­ten­dees wit­nessed the de­liv­ery of the first ser­vice mod­ule that will pro­vide propul­sion, power, air, and wa­ter for as­tro­nauts on the space­craft.

The Orion ser­vice mod­ule is a tem­plate for the in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion and cost-shar­ing that will be key to reach­ing Mars. ESA cov­ered the $470 mil­lion-plus tab to build the mod­ule, with the work per­formed by Air­bus Group in Europe. Over the next year, NASA will carry out a bat­tery of struc­tural tests for a first flight to or­bit the moon in mid-2018. That will also be the first full-scale test of the largest rocket in NASA history, the Space Launch Sys­tem (SLS). If NASA’s Jour­ney to Mars pro­gram pro­gresses on sched­ule—plans call for about one manned mis­sion a year start­ing in 2023—as­tro­nauts bear­ing the U.S. flag (and most likely a few oth­ers) will be bound for Mars by 2040.

In the era of the Apollo pro­gram, the space pro­gram cap­tured more than 4 per­cent of fed­eral out­lays from 1960 to 1973—about $19.4 bil­lion in to­tal—en­abling it to reach the moon in less than a decade. That’s roughly $156 bil­lion to­day, ad­justed for in­fla­tion. NASA has never put a big num­ber on its Mars am­bi­tions. One rea­son is to avoid “scar­ing” law­mak­ers, says Marco Cac­eres, a se­nior an­a­lyst at Teal Group, an aero­space con­sult­ing com­pany. Cac­eres fig­ures that the tab will reach at least $1 tril­lion, whereas a 2015 Na­tional Acad­e­mies of Sci­ences, Engi­neer­ing, and Medicine re­port on space ex­plo­ration es­ti­mates the cost of a Mars trip could be any­where from a bit un­der $100 bil­lion to $300 bil­lion. “I think ev­ery­one expects that a multi­na­tional coali­tion is go­ing to be in­volved at some level,” says Casey Dreier, ad­vo­cacy di­rec­tor for the Plan­e­tary So­ci­ety, a non­profit that promotes space ex­plo­ration.

The bud­get Congress ap­proved in De­cem­ber en­dows NASA with $19.3 bil­lion for the fis­cal year 2016, with $3.3 bil­lion tagged for Orion and SLS. The agency says it can fund flights into the 2020s to help test new tech­nolo­gies for a Mars trip. But it’s de­cid­edly not averse to shar­ing the bur­den. “Part­ner­ship is an im­por­tant el­e­ment of this whole en­deavor,” says Greg Wil­liams, NASA’s deputy as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor for hu­man ex­plo­ration and oper­a­tions. ESA hopes col­lab­o­rat­ing with NASA “will ac­tu­ally lead to hav­ing a Euro­pean as­tro­naut on a fu­ture space mis­sion,” said Nico Dettmann, head of the agency’s de­vel­op­ment depart­ment, at the Nov. 30 event.

Only a few na­tions have the engi­neer­ing and hard­ware ca­pac­ity to help make the Mars mis­sion a re­al­ity, and at least two of them face con­straints on spend­ing. China’s econ­omy is in the midst of a slow­down, and Rus­sia re­cently down­graded its space agency to a state-backed cor­po­ra­tion, in a bid to re­duce costs and cor­rup­tion. The other emerg­ing op­tion, as Cac­eres notes, are pri­vate space com­pa­nies that can fund the spe­cial­ized work needed to make a Mars mis­sion fea­si­ble. Spaceob­sessed bil­lion­aires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Be­zos could lessen NASA’s de­pen­dence on fi­nan­cial help from abroad. Even with­out its enor­mous Cold War bud­get, Cac­eres says a link to the Amer­i­can space pro­gram re­mains a sought-af­ter cre­den­tial for many com­pa­nies: “NASA still has in­cred­i­ble ca­chet.”

The bot­tom line NASA wants part­ners to share the bur­den of get­ting to Mars, which some say could cost as much as $1 tril­lion.


Load­ing por­tions of the Orion ser­vice mod­ule into a NASA trans­porter in Florida

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