Waiting to Hurry Up for Mars

Twenty years ago, Robert Zubrin emerged as arguably the leading advocate for human missions to Mars. His book The Case for Mars, which explained both how humans could go to Mars as well as why they should, came out just as interest in Mars was peaking with the general public, thanks to claims that a Martian meteorite harbored evidence of past life. That led to the formation of The Mars Society and various projects, including prototype habitats in the Canadian Arctic and in Utah.

However, it has not yet resulted in a human mission to Mars. Zubrin, while frustrated by the lack of progress, remains undeterred, continuing to speak in support of not just human exploration and settlement of the red planet, but also his particular approach, called Mars Direct.

That included a speech May 19 at the Humans To Mar s Summit, a conference in Washington organized by the advocacy group Explore Mars, where he again pitched a largely sympathetic audience on Mars Direct. It’s a speech he could have given 20 years ago — and, indeed, some of his slides appeared to date back to the mid-1990s.

Robert Zubrin speaking during a May 17 debate at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington. Credit: SpaceNews / Jeff Foust

Robert Zubrin speaking during a May 17 debate at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington. Credit: SpaceNews / Jeff Foust

Earlier in the conference, in a debate with Explore Mars board member Joe Cassady, Zubrin tried to seek new urgency for human Mars exploration. While Cassady endorsed human Mars missions in the 2030s, along the lines of what NASA is proposing, Zubrin panned those efforts.

“NASA, or really the administration, which directs NASA, currently has no Mars plan,” he argued. He criticized elements of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” plan, like the Asteroid Redirect Mission, calling it a “random act” that NASA has clumsily inserted into that overall architecture.

Zubrin argued such missions could, and should, be done much faster. “If the next president was to start a humans-to-Mars program that was serious after inauguration, we could be landing on Mars, or at least certainly taking off for Mars, by the end of her second term,” he said, a line that prompted both laughter and applause from the audience.

However, there’s no evidence yet that the next occupant of the White House shares his zeal for Mars. The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, suggested earlier in the campaign that Mars exploration was of secondary importance to fixing the nation’s infrastructure. The likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has said little about space at all in the campaign, and certainly nothing like an endorsement of an accelerated Mars exploration program.

“While I share the passion and the impatience of many,” said Cassady at the debate, “my inner engineer just sees too many hurdles.” That includes increased risks of accidents and deaths that could result, he believed, in “a loss of support and questioning from the public and policymakers.”

So advocates like Zubrin may have to continue to wait for an opportunity to accelerate Mars plans. “Humans to Mars is not a task for the next generation,” he said at the conference debate. “It’s a task for the next administration.” That, too, is a line that he could have uttered 20 years ago.