Universe University

A journey through astronomy and space history to the outer boundaries of the universe.

Political Roadblocks to a Red Planet

“Mapping the trajectory of a spacecraft is a relatively straightforward business, bound only by the laws of physics. Mapping the trajectory of an idea through a political system, on the other hand… can be a dicey business.”
-Robert Zubrin

Both today just as in the recent past, politics and national willpower are the only forces stopping human beings from landing on Mars in the very near future. This might strike some as a controversial assertion, considering many of the alarmist claims that are made about everything from space technology to the dangers of radiation on Mars. Some politicians and some at NASA have suggested that we are not ready to send humans to Mars. They argue that first we must build space stations in Earth orbit, or a space station orbiting around the moon, or a full fledged lunar base… all to serve as some sort of metaphorical ‘stepping stone’ to human Mars exploration. Yet none of these goals need to be met for human beings to land on Mars and explore its surface. Human beings have made realistic, tangible plans over and over again in history to personally visit the red planet and land on its surface… only for those plans to disintegrate or be struck down for purely political reasons. The roadblocks to the red planet are political, not physical or technological.

Technologically speaking, there is good reason to be optimistic about the prospect of landing human beings on Mars. There are few (if any) technological or physical challenges that cannot be overcome. According to aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, in terms of our capabilities in space, we are much closer to landing human beings on Mars now than we were to landing human beings on the moon in 1961: the same year President Kennedy promised a moon landing by the end of the decade. This assessment makes sense considering that President Kennedy’s 1961 pledge came at a time when America had logged only 15 minutes in outer space in a single suborbital flight. Not a single American astronaut had completed so much as one orbit around the Earth. The Soviet Union had superior space technology and had shared virtually no technological or medical knowledge about the rigors of manned spaceflight. Yet the United States, collectively as a nation, committed to a journey of over one week through deep space some 238,000 miles beyond Earth orbit to land on an unknown celestial body before returning home. The United States did so at a time when no American or Soviet robots, let alone human beings, had ever made such a journey successfully. The first soft landing of a robotic probe on the moon wouldn’t transpire until 1966! In 1961, there were some at NASA who believed that meteor impacts had left behind so much fine grained dust that any large, heavy metal craft landing on its surface would be liable to quickly sink into the dusk like quicksand! In contrast, today we have a wealth of shared experience with human spaceflight, many robotic missions to Mars, three nations sending humans into space, and far more space infrastructure both in the public and private sector around the globe. Yet there are still naysayers that claim landing humans on Mars is just beyond our grasp.

Sending humans to Mars is not a new idea, just like sending human beings to the moon in 1961 was not a new idea. As early as 1920, American rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard calculated it would be (theoretically) possible to use a liquid fueled rocket to send humans to the moon. Although there is evidence that Goddard also believed the same technology could send humans to Mars but advocated for the moon for fear of public ridicule. In 1948, the brilliant rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun crafted detailed plans for a manned mission to Mars. (It was later published as a book called “The Mars Project”) Plans included ships that could be constructed in low earth orbit, the size/design of each ship, and the amount of chemical propellant the vehicle would use to reach Mars. In 1948, Von Braun realized that rocket technology would need to be developed for 15 to 20 years before such a mission could be realized but considered this a plausible goal. Von Braun’s employers within the United States government were more interested in weapons of war in the short term but that all changed when the space race began. Mars missions proposed today still have some striking similarities to Von Braun’s plan from ‘The Mars Project’.

The Soviet Union’s N-1 rocket program was originally designed for manned orbital/flyby missions of Venus and Mars. Only after America’s pledge to land men on the moon was the N-1 repurposed for manned lunar missions. The N-1 rocket would have had more thrust than the Saturn V but the Soviet project was cancelled after the United States beat the Soviets to the moon. The N-1 had its share of failures during its first test flights but this is true of most rockets. Fiery and explosive rocket failures were common in Von Braun’s V-2 rocket in Nazi Germany but that same rocket later successfully killed thousands of English civilians during World War II. There were countless failures with the Soviet R-7 family of rockets as well. Today, the R-7 is one of the most reliable families of rockets on the planet and launches astronauts to the International Space Station. So it serves to reason that, under different political conditions, the N-1 would have eventually flown successfully.

Like the Saturn V, the N-1 would have had the capability to launch massive payloads beyond low Earth orbit. There were even Soviet plans made to use the N-1 to send multiple modules to Mars and to create a Mars train of sorts in which a small nuclear reactor would power a manned rover. Multiple modules on wheels would be connected behind it like trailers, storing supplies, housing living quarters, an airlock, and a laboratory for experiments. For one year, the Soviet cosmonauts planned to drive on planetary road trip, exploring different locations on the Martian surface. Sadly, Soviet leaders lost interest in such missions after America’s lunar landing ended the space race. Many N-1 components were hidden or destroyed to cover up the fact that the program even existed. It was reasoned that future western historians couldn not technically claim that the Soviets lost the race to the moon if there was no evidence that they had even been participating in such a race to begin with!

Project Orion offered a chance to send human beings to Mars via nuclear pulse propulsion with a departure date as early as 1965. Physicists working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or D.A.R.P.A. and later the United States Air Force labored for years on the design of the spacecraft. Since it would rely on nuclear technology, far more powerful than chemical rockets, the craft could carry a crew of 200 people and large payloads. The chief aerodynamics engineer at Northrop Grumman was brought on the project and David Weiss, a test pilot who had flown virtually every experimental aircraft in the U.S. military, also joined Project Orion. There were even plans to visit Jupiter or Saturn by 1970. But the project was cancelled in 1963 with the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear explosions of any kind in outer space. There was no Mars landing in 1965.

NERVA or Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application was pursued by the AEC and NASA throughout the 1960s to serve as a propulsion system for human missions to Mars. It involved using a nuclear reactor to turn liquid hydrogen into a super heated gas for propulsion. It could seriously reduce travel time on such a journey and would be far more efficient than conventional chemical rockets. (Project Rover explored similar technology.)

After the historic Apollo 11 mission launched in July of 1969, acting NASA Administrator Thomas Paine put together a major proposal for a manned mission to Mars. Paine, a former submarine commander in World War II, saw American space capability as similar to that of the British Empire's navy in the 1400s: many new ships, crude but reliable methods of navigation, and infinite potential for exploration and expansion. According to space historian John Logsdon, Paine felt that the Apollo 11 moon landing would be the optimal time to campaign for a Mars mission. He was determined to "hoist the banner and see if anybody would rally to it." In the 1960s, Von Braun had directed his Future Projects Office to look at the hardware that would be needed for such missions. In 1969, Von Braun appeared before a congressional committee and estimated human beings could land astronauts on Mars between 1985 and 1990 with Apollo era levels of funding. But even Von Braun was skeptical it would recieve the political support it needed, claiming that current events such as the Vietnam War had turned the United States from a visionary society into an introspective one.

By 1972, NERVA has seen several highly successful tests in the Nevada desert, proving the nuclear engines worked. The tests were far more successful than many engineers had predicted. NERVA could have been lofted into orbit on the final stage of the already existing Saturn V rocket. The Apollo Applications Program considered Mars missions among a variety of other possibilities to put existing Apollo hardware to use. At the time, it would have certainly been possible to build additional Saturn V rockets for such projects. In the end though, NERVA was terminated because President Nixon wanted to channel resources into creating a reusable space shuttle to transport military payloads, so there was no desire/need for a nuclear rocket engine for Mars missions. (Space stations in Earth orbit were also identified as a short-term goal.) There was no Mars landing between 1985 and 1990. Today NASA has gone back to the future, so to speak. They are returning to funding nuclear rocket engines for potential Mars missions, pledging at least 100,000 dollars to the effort to develop them with a flight test scheduled for 2024. With any luck, perhaps NASA will manage to successfully redevelop technology that was practically ready for use half a century prior.

All past efforts to develop technology for manned Mars missions were abandoned not for insurmountable engineering or technical challenges but for purely political reasons! Money along with national and political will have stopped humans from getting to Mars. At the University of Colorado at Boulder in the 1980s, the “Mars Underground”, an organization comprised largely of graduate students, held a series of conferences promoting human Mars exploration keeping the dream alive.

The Space Exploration Initiative (S.E.I.)

S.E.I. was President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 attempt to offer a more decisive directive to NASA for space exploration but was unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic, involving multiple expansive projects (including a lunar base) spanning not years but decades. The United States Congress also hated its 450 billion dollar price tag.

In 1989 as well as today; there are many factions at NASA competing for money and political support, so some at NASA are unwilling to solely support a manned mission to Mars because it might make their faction’s project obsolete. S.E.I. satisfied different factions but pushed off a manned Mars mission as a much more distant and far-reaching goal. Strangely, some plans for that Mars landing indicated astronauts in the early 2000s might stay on the surface of Mars for only a few weeks before returning to Earth! That’s very different from more recent Mars plans to stay on the surface for up to a year or more! S.E.I. became unpopular and President Bush and others abandoned it.

Mark Albrecht was the Executive Secretary on the National Space Council during S.E.I. and said this: “I think at least three large constituencies have taken hold and own a significant part of NASA and the civil space program. As time goes on, as the years go on, they get bigger and stronger and more entrenched … They have carved up that $17.3 billion, they lobby for it directly and independently, they fiercely protect it, and anybody who wants to change it is going to have to come through them.”

Even today, NASA is distracted by other projects proposed by certain factions that are totally unnecessary to landing human beings on Mars. The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway or LOP-G is a good example of this. This is a proposed project for a space station orbiting the moon and is not at all essential for landing human beings on Mars. But if one were a NASA engineer working on the LOP-G, why would one advocate for a manned Mars mission knowing that it will simply take away funds from the project that you’ve devoted all your time to?

‘Mars Direct’ (Robert Zubrin)

Robert Zubrin could be considered one of the foremost authorities on the subject of manned Mars missions. In 1990, he released one of the simplest and cheapest plans for human Mars exploration that had ever been concieved in the aerospace community.

From 1989 to 1990, Robert Zubrin worked for Martin Marietta, which later became Lockeed Martin. He asked his employers if he and fellow colleagues could work on an alternative proposal for human missions to Mars. This proposal became ‘Mars Direct’, which involved sending an (unmanned) Earth Return Vehicle (E.R.V.) ahead of the actual astronauts to produce methane-oxygen fuel by combining carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere with hydrogen brought along from Earth. (95 percent of the return fuel could be made from the Martian atmosphere.) A small crew of astronauts would arrive a few months later, land on Mars, explore for a year, then return in the E.R.V. Without the help of chemical engineers, Zubrin and his team assembled a small propellant plant that made fuel from only carbon dioxide and hydrogen – demonstrating the idea could work. Separating oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to create breathing oxygen for the E.R.V. was suggested as well.

‘Mars Direct’ would have cost 55 billion dollars: far less than S.E.I. and within NASA’s existing budget at the time. If pursued, landings on Mars would have taken place in the year 2000. Zubrin’s presentations at both the Johnson Space Flight center as well as the Marshall Space Flight Center generated strong support for his plan among members of NASA… but they didn’t satisfy all of the different, entrenched factions at the organization. ‘Mars Semi-Direct’ was suggested by NASA as a compromise: a slight variation on Zubrin’s basic plan with more space hardware, in part, for redundancy.

President Bill Clinton’s administration favored using robotic space probes as a cost effective alternative to human missions and did not advocate for human travel outside of low Earth orbit. ‘Mars Direct’ died off as a consequence. President George W. Bush unveiled plans in 2004 to return astronauts to the moon (Constellation program) with a Mars landing in the early 2030s. In the midst of the Great Recession, President Obama cancelled the Constellation Program when a commission found it could not move forward without serious increases in funding. In a speech, President proclaimed human beings could orbit Mars by the mid-2030s and land there at some undetermined time afterward.

Since 1990; Zubrin has been a militant, aggressive, and charismatic advocate for human Mars exploration. He was also a mentor to a young Elon Musk. After the sale of Paypal, Musk donated 5,000 dollars to Zubrin’s ‘Mars Society’ just to have coffee with Zubrin and hear his ideas. Musk then pledged another 100,000 dollars to Zubrin’s organization ‘The Mars Society’, before serving on the Board of Directors for that organization. Shortly thereafter, Musk left the board to found SpaceX.

Dennis Tito was a veteran of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and in 2001, became the first space tourist to fund his own trip into low earth orbit. Tito proposed ‘Inspiration Mars’ as a plan to send two astronauts on an orbital or flyby mission to Mars using largely existing or near-future technology. Tito suggested launch windows in 2017 and 2021, respectively. He asked for NASA to contribute 700 million dollars to the effort. NASA declined to offer any money. They spent 2.5 billion on the Curiosity rover instead.


At the 2016 meeting of the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, Elon Musk unveiled a proposal to send astronauts to Mars. The plan called for a massive spacecraft: the Interplanetary Transport System or I.T.S. capable of carrying 500 tons of cargo into outer space. In 2017, at the International Astronautical Congress in Australia, Musk released extensive revisions to this plan. In the coming years, SpaceX plans to phase out their Falcon9 and Falcon Heavy Lift rockets and construct the B.F.R. or Big Falcon Rocket. The B.F.R. will loft the ‘Starship’ carrying 100 people into earth orbit. Then, once in earth orbit, the ‘Starship’ spacecraft will refill its tanks with methane and oxygen and set out for Mars. It will carry about 150 tons of cargo, far less than the I.T.S craft that Musk had mentioned a year prior but still an impressive amount of cargo. If completed, such space vehicles will be more powerful than the Saturn V, relying Raptor engines with liquid methane fuel. If such engines work as planned, they will have the highest chamber pressure of any such engine ever built. Musk says the craft will be made of carbon fiber composites. Yet many aerospace experts say this is a risky proposition, since the environment of space is very taxing and carbon fiber parts are hard to repair on earth… let alone in outer space. If nothing else, his plan to land the first ‘Starship’ on Mars by 2024 seems overly ambitious and ultimately unlikely. Musk planned to send astronauts to orbit the moon in 2018 and such a mission has yet to transpire. As of yet, no private company has sent astronauts into Earth orbit, let alone anywhere else in space. Musk’s 2017 presentations, like his plan to send astronauts to the moon, offered very few details and an ambitous timeline. Musk spoke for less than an hour and took no questions from the audience.

More than 25 years after ‘Mars Direct’, components of that plan serve as crucial pieces of Elon Musk’s plans for Mars. Musk said, “My vision is … a transport system between Earth and Mars that is able to refuel on Mars – that is very important – so you don’t have to carry the return fuel when you go there.” Musk's vision for Mars, in this regard, is hardly original. It recycles the ideas of Zubrin's 1990 ‘Mars Direct’ proposal for an efficient vehicle that refuels on the surface using the martian atmosphere.

In over half a century; the dream of landing human beings on Mars has seen countless detailed plans, enormous sums of money, extensive political battles, and the birth of revolutionary new technology spanning at least two nations as well as the public and private sector. “Mars landing by 1965 - Saturn by 1970”, “Mars landing by 1985”, “Mars landing by 2000”, “Mars landing by 2030”, “orbiting Mars by 2018” and “orbiting Mars in the mid-2030s”. The deadlines came and went, gradually pushed forward further and further… and the goals became more modest and less ambitious. Perhaps, at best, humanity can now look forward to seeing humans orbit Mars by 2040? Or maybe such a goal is just too ambitious? Through it all, politics and a lack of political willpower have been the only major roadblocks to landing human beings on Mars.

Perhaps it is not surprising? Fear of nuclear annihilation, Cold War tensions, and the Cuban Missile Crisis all made the stakes of the space race in the 1960s a national imperative. Winning the space race was seen as a potentially insurmountable technological goal for the United States. But it was not a politically challenging argument for President Kennedy to state that the United States should indeed be concerned with catching up in the space race! The United States made the national decision to land human beings on the moon, set a decisive timeline for less than a decade into the future, and moved forward with bipartisan support stretching over a decade from the Kennedy Administration to the Nixon Administration. There were no political roadblocks in achieving that goal, only technological ones that were swiftly dealt with.


When discussing landing human beings on Mars; the dangers of radiation to the human body are often discussed with serious, grim, even alarmist undertones. NASA guidelines for human missions in low Earth orbit state that if a mission increases lifetime risks of cancer later by more than 3 percent, the organization will not permit it. This is a completely arbitrary rule, other foreign space agencies do not abide by this rule, and NASA has no clear guidelines for deep space missions yet. A one year stay on Mars coupled with travel time to and from the planet will likely expose astronauts to 1 sievert (Sv) of radiation, meaning an increased risk of cancer of about 5 percent, only 2 percent above NASA guidelines for low Earth orbit. Any exposure below 3.5 sieverts (Sv) isn’t likely to be anywhere close to fatal for such a crew. Furthermore, radiation does not affect everyone equally or with the same level of severity. Men and women are affected differently by radiation. Older people and younger people are affected differently by radiation. Crew selection should take age/gender into consideration. Water is also a great radiation shield. It simply ads more weight to a spacecraft or habitat, so it has not been used in the past.

Ultimately, why should radiation be the primary roadblock that stops human beings from exploring the surface of Mars in the eyes of NASA? They are already planning to place NASA crews on the LOP-G orbing the moon, exposing them to the radiation of deep space! How could it possibly be argued that landing astronauts on Mars is too risky due to radiation but placing astronauts in orbit around the moon – exposed to equal or greater levels of radiation – is an acceptable risk?

Psychological Challenges

Some questions have been raised about the psychological issues that might arise from being in a cramped, confined spacecraft for such extensive periods of time but several experiments have confirmed that crews on earth can live and work together in a friendly manner in isolated, confined spaces for extended periods of time. American and Russian experiments with crews of varying genders, ethnicities, and nationalities have not met with any disastrous outcomes. In fact, the longest of these Earth based experiments was perhaps the most uneventful: Mars 500. It was a 520 day psychological experiment at the Russian Academy of Sciences where a crew of 6 men were placed in a confined space and forced to live and work together for well over a year. One crew member experienced difficulty sleeping near the very end of the experiment but they all cooperated, solved problems, and celebrated holidays together. Interpersonal conflicts of any kind were almost unheard of. Results of such tests, overall, are extremely positive.

A One Way Trip?

In one discussion about Mars, Apollo era NASA Flight Director Chris Kraft said that returning an astronaut crew to the Earth would be 10 times more costly then leaving them there to establish a permanent colony. If this estimate is correct, a one way trip could drastically reduce costs. This must be considered since the financial cost of such a mission are always a political liability. Lava tubes or buried habitats in the Martian soil could provide necessary shielding from radiation. Zubrin says that a one way Mars journey is something we should, at least, consider. Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin endorsed the idea also when he said, “When you go to Mars, you need to have made the decision that you’re there permanently. The more people we have there, the more it can become a sustaining environment. Except for very rare exceptions, the people who go to Mars shouldn’t be coming back.” History shows that European explorers did not venture to North America with the expectation that they would return home in a few weeks or months. It is also possible that some sort of hybrid mission to Mars could be conceived where astronauts might spend years conducting the first surveys and explorations of the red planet, returning home when space technology has advanced, perhaps in 10 years or 15 years after the initial landing.

The Case for Human Exploration

How much longer will our civilization and our species languish in stagnation, refusing to make an investment in the human exploration of the worlds in our own cosmic backyard? If SpaceX does not become the sole private entity shouldering the burden of manned Mars exploration, a strong national political effort will need to be made, in collaboration with NASA, to make human missions to Mars a reality. Perhaps some international collaboration might be possible? Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson stated, quite correctly, economic or military factors motivated the colonization of North America and other frontiers. Without such factors, the planets are unlikely to be explored or colonized by human beings any time soon. At minimum, to evangelize about the merits of a manned mission to Mars; economic, scientific, and political arguments must be put forth.

Economic: It has been said that the chief export from Mars will not be any natural resource but technological patents. In 1999, Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell wrote an essay titled ‘Why Have a Space Program? Glad You Asked’ where he articulated the countless technological and economic benefits that the space race brought us.

Computers in the late 1950s barely fit inside a room… by the late 1960s, the space age gave birth microprocessors small enough to fit in a spacecraft; the same technology in our laptops and smart phones today. Digital image possessing to enhance photographs of the moon gave way to magnetic resonance imaging or the M.R.I., a staple of modern medicine. The Apollo 1 fire during a routine test led NASA engineers to invent smoke detectors which soon became commonplace in American homes. Satellite dishes, GPS navigation, shock absorbing materials in bicycle and motorcycle helmets, new methods to heat/insulate homes, and cordless power tools were all birthed from the space race. America spent $20 billion dollars on getting to the moon but for every dollar spent, 7 more dollars have been returned to the U.S. economy. One must wonder how many other government expenditures return the same amount of money to our economy? Surely we all must admit that investing in the human exploration of space offered humanity many benefits right here on Earth!

Scientific: The 800 pounds of lunar regolith returned by Apollo astronauts presented planetary scientists with a metaphorical primer with which to understand and observe the geology of the planets and moons of our solar system. This scientific pay dirt offered an astounding wealth of knowledge about the Earth, the Moon, and the solar system itself.

The discovery of microbial life on Mars could present us with a biological primer for our understanding organic life itself. How common is life in the universe? How different is it on other planets? How unique is life on Earth? There are ample sites on Mars to search for it such as Terra Sirenum, an area of massive salt deposits and perhaps the site of an ancient seabed. Astrobiologist Charles Cockell stated “If you send me to Terra Sirenum with a microscope and a shovel… I can tell you in a few hours whether there’s life on Mars.” Finding life elsewhere could be one of the most profoundly impactful events in the history of science and human history in general.

Furthermore, the space race of the 1960s, culminating in the first manned lunar landings, inspired an entire generation in the western world to pursue careers in science and engineering. Such scientists and engineers were badly needed. While the impact of Soviet satellite Sputnik was largely political in 1957, it drew much needed attention to a troubling problem in the United States. Studies at the time showed that the Soviet Union was training two to three times as many scientists and engineers as the United States with each passing year. One might wonder how the course of the previous century might have transpired if this statistic had not changed in the United States. And one can only wonder how a new generation might be inspired by watching human beings take their first steps on another planet… perhaps in the process, unlocking some of the mysteries of life in our universe.

Political: In 1970, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Andrei Sakharov wrote an open letter to the Soviet Union's government calling for democratic reforms in the Soviet Union. He cited the moon landings as evidence for the superiority of democracy itself as a form of government. Many national leaders in the United States today are particularly concerned with Russia and China's more authoritarian models of government, especially in regards to how those governments seek to intervene in the affairs of other nations in their sphere of influence. One must wonder about the political and economic implications of nations such as Russia or China accomplishing a manned mission to Mars before the United States. Perhaps no American politician is concerned with such a scenario right now but remember... European monarchies in the late 1400s also weren't particularly concerned that Spanish ships searching for new trade routes would permanently alter the course of western civilization. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower wasn't initially concerned by the prospect of the Soviet Union launching a satellite before the United States either. Space politics, much like Earth politics, can change in an instant.

“I realize that this is, in some measure, an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.”
-President John F. Kennedy

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