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What Happens Then?

If Keith is right, and Mars is off the table, and the President ends up choosing the Moon as a destination for NASA’s long-term efforts, what happens then to the Mars Society?

Should the Moon be chosen, it would effectively guarantee that no manned missions to Mars would occur within at minimum the time frame envisioned for the new lunar undertaking (at least not US missions, run by NASA…private, foreign, or multinational missions to Mars are another matter). If so, the Mars Society would seem to have little to do — no amount of letter writing will convince Congress to fund a mission to Mars until after the lunar enterprise (whatever it may be) is completed/in operation, which could take a decade or more. Will the organization remain viable for that long, with members and potential members knowing full well that no matter how much time or money they contribute, no such mission will materialize until some finite and not-soon point in the future?

One purpose of the organization is to develop technology and experience — a knowledge base — which will be useful if and when someone decides to mount a manned mission to Mars. Even absent any near-term possibility for such a mission, the organization can continue along this path, and can benefit substantially from experience gained from a return to the Moon (imagine a “Mars Crisium Research Station”). Indeed, the Mars Society may need to shift its primary focus to this sort of activity, becoming less a grassroots body and more like, say, SAE — sponsoring projects for young engineers, developing industry standards, performing practical research and development, etc.

The problem with this path is that it’s hard to see such an organization getting the kind of support it would require to be effective. There is a great deal of public interest in the ongoing robotic exploration efforts, and beyond the flotilla currently approaching Mars there are several other missions in planning and preparation, which will periodically refresh this interest for some years to come. But is this interest enough for a modified Mars Society to gather enough money and members to survive and make a successful transition to this new form?

The sense of power and the faith in the future which sustain a mass movement would both be undermined, in the case of the Mars Society, by the decision to return to the Moon. Faith in the future would be shaken, paradoxically, by knowing just how far in the future the goal of the organization might be — it’s one thing to think it might take us twenty years to get to Mars, but another matter entirely to know for a fact that it will be at least that long before such an undertaking can even be considered. The sense of power would be dramatically weakened by the knowledge that no amount of letter writing or editorializing or political outreach could change the immutable fact that we were going to the Moon first — that all such efforts would be impotent and wasted given the clear, fixed priorities of those whose support would be required to send humans to Mars.

Hopefully someone in the Mars Society is thinking about this, and formulating some sort of contingency plan in case the President does decide to go for the Moon.

6 comments to What Happens Then?

  • Carl Carlsson

    While it would be disappointing, I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. It would represent a great improvement over the status quo, even if it isn’t a step in the exact direction I would want.

    Ultimately, as I see it, it depends upon the extent of the effort. I agree with Zubrin that the Moon is not truly a stepping stone to Mars, though we could learn something. There is a huge downside, however, if the Moon effort is unnecessarily bloated and wasteful. If so, it will suck resources for any other effort and might actualy make Mars a more distant goal. Just as bad, it will reinforce the perception that humans to Mars has to be a budget buster –“if it costs this much to get to the Moon, imagine how much it will cost to get to Mars!”

    If we go to the Moon, the Mars Society will have a continuing advocacy role with respect to eventually getting humans to Mars, and an additional role in critiquing what I expect will be a “constituency-driven” mission architecture, as Zubrin would say.

    No, if the goal is the Moon it will not be the end of the Mars Society. Was Bill Clinton’s Presidency the end of Rush Limbaugh? Hardly. (Not that the Mars Society is to the Moon as Limbaugh is to Clinton, but it’s what came to mind.)

  • kert

    Why not “go with the flow”, be supportive of moon as a destination, but advocate for the most beneficial approach for this. No flags and footprints, private enterprise definitely on board as much as possible, functioning infrastructure established on LEO at least.
    This way, it could be possible to eventually get to mars faster than planned because:
    1 ) all space related services would become much more available and cheaper
    2 ) investment money much more readily available, because people would actually start to believe that its possible to do something useful in space for private enterprises.
    3 ) the most important concept for permanent human inhabitation in space, living off the land, would actually become a reality and be much smaller hurdle to overcome for Mars

    Mars people could form a significant “watchdog” for lunar enterprise, so it would actually be done “right”. Join forces with Lunar society/Artemis project until you are ready to seize the opportunity and depart to mars on your own ?

  • T.L. James

    I’m not saying that the Mars Society will automatically fold, should a return to the Moon be chosen as NASA’s new long-term focus. I’m saying that it *could* happen, and that it needs to be considered and planned for.

    There’s lots of things that the MS could offer to such lunar activities (such as those noted by kert above), and much that it could learn as well, if facts neccessitate using the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars. The concern I have is not that there isn’t a role there for the Mars Society, rather that the grassroots base on which the Society depends may *conclude* (regardless of the potential) that there is no such role. This could prompt members and donors to volunteer their time and money elsewhere, thus starving the Society of the human and financial resources it would need to keep itself involved in the Moon activities.

  • Carl Carlsson

    If the Moon ends up being our destination, I would end up being supportive, as kert suggests. The critical role I mentioned for the Mars Society is, in my opinion, a very important form of support. This is especially important if the crticism (of mission architecture, not of “going” once that decision has been made) helps ensure that what we end up with is cost effective and sustainable. I view this in the same light as current Mars Society criticism of bloated OSP plans.

    I do want to know what we will learn about “living off the land” if we go back to the Moon. Recent reports seem to indicate that the amount of water is likely much less than previously assumed. Most of what I hear from the Moon folks is that we will be mining helium three. Snake oil! Let’s see…we will entice investment for mining something that has no current use, though we’ve been promised fusion power for decades and it is at least a couple of decades away. Where are these investors? Can I sell them air brakes for their jet cars?

  • Boyd W. Smith

    If we are going to the moon, the article here contains likely justification.


  • Carl Carlsson

    My point exactly, Boyd. Fuel for reactors that don’t exist and are certainly decades away, if not longer. Harrison Schmidt testified that we will have fusion here sooner if we have the fuel readily available, but I don’t buy it.

    Note that it only took the reporter until the fifth paragraph before mixing up “fusion” and “fission”.