The Race To Mars: Building the Future on the Skeletons of the Past

Man Vs Mars

In the novel and film The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney is caught up in a struggle for survival against nature—on Mars. Presumed dead while his crew-mates evacuate due to an intense storm, Watney is stranded on Mars and rendered unable to communicate with Earth. Left with equipment that was only designed to last through 30 days of use on Mars, his survival depends on his ability to adapt the resources at hand to endure the inhospitable Martian surface for years to come—or until NASA figures out that he's still alive and mounts a rescue mission.

But this isn't just Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Mark Watney isn't a high-cultured blockhead stranded on a deserted island after a shipwreck and forced to learn survival skills from scratch. On the contrary, Watney's been training his whole life for this mission, and he has all of the skills and some of the tools he needs to succeed.

Mark Watney, alone on Mars (portrayed by Matt Damon).
Image Credit: The Martian (2015)

For survival to even be possible, he's been left with a closed-system human habitat in perfect working order (to start with), a spacesuit that allows for extended operations in the near-vacuum of the red planet, two rovers that are designed to carry humans long-distance across difficult Martian terrain, and a moderate amount of food.

But the tools at hand only make things doable, not easy. For long-term survival, Watney will need to grow his own food—but nothing grows on Mars. To get rescued, he'll need to find a way to let NASA know that he's alive—but the communications system on his habitat was completely destroyed in the storm. For short-term survival, he'll need to keep all of his equipment functional long after its design-life intended—but he doesn't have much in the way of spare parts. 

In short, Watney only has the technology and resources he needs to keep himself alive temporarily. And if he wants to survive on the red planet long enough that he may one day return to Earth, he'll need to hustle. 

Preparations Began Long Ago

In 2010, NASA outlined its program to develop the technologies required to put humans on Mars sometime in the 2030's. Fortunately, many of these technologies have been in development and constant improvement for decades, some since John F. Kennedy in 1961 announced that the U.S. would land astronauts on the Moon before 1970 (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down in July of 1969).

Back then, NASA didn't know what technology they needed to develop to get there. They didn't even know what they didn't know.

Today, NASA knows exactly what technologies are needed to put humans on Mars, and they're developing them all simultaneously. The Martian explores a not-to-distant future in which the technologies required for manned missions to Mars have all been achieved, and follows humanity's ill-fated third expedition to the Martian surface (it was also the third manned expedition to the Lunar surface (Apollo 13) that nearly ended in catastrophe). The majority of what we see in the film and novel is based on science fact rather than fiction.

Director Ridley Scott on NASA's Journey to Mars:

So, with The Martian film hitting theaters this coming weekend, let's take a look at the current state of some of the technologies featured in both the novel and film. In part 1, I'll be specifically talking about NASA's next-generation rocket and next-generation space capsule

NASA is Building the Future on the Skeletons of the Past

NASA hasn't had the capability to send astronauts to space in its own hardware since it retired the Space Shuttle back in 2011. And since then, they've been relying entirely on Russian-made Soyuz capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station in six-month cycles. If they're planning to put humans on Mars anytime soon, they're not off to a great start. 

NASA is currently outsourcing the development of a crew capsule to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station to commercial companies, with operations set to begin in 2017. The front-runners for this prestigious NASA contract include Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX. 

But while NASA has allocated funding to those companies to cover some of the development costs (essentially subsidizing commercial spaceflight), they've also been busy developing their own next-generation rocket and crew capsule combination. If all goes according to NASA's current plans, a new era of space exploration is poised to kick-off over the coming decades: manned missions to deep space.

Nearly 50 years after its first launch, NASA's Saturn V, operated between 1966 and 1973, still holds the record for the most powerful rocket ever built. It's what got humans to the Moon. The total cost of developing, building, and launching each Saturn V (not including the payload it was launching) worked out to $3.2 billion dollars per rocket launch (or $1.2 billion if not counting research and development costs). NASA shot off a total of 13 Saturn V's, with payloads as heavy as 140,000 kilograms capable of being lifted into Earth orbit. 

1960's Saturn V rocket

Only 13 of these behemoths were ever launched.
Image Credit: NASA

And with the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA lost the capability of sending its own astronauts into space at all. The current most heavy-duty rocket launch system in the world is NASA's Delta IV Heavy, which can lift up to 28,000 kilograms to Earth orbit and costs $375 million per launch. While this and its less expensive counterparts are plenty enough to send most unmanned probes out into deep space, if we ever want to send humans to Mars, we'll need to find a way to lift some much heavier hardware upstairs. 

That's where NASA's next-generation Space Launch System (SLS) comes in. The first iteration, set to undergo its first launch as early as 2018, will be capable of lifting 70,000 kilograms of cargo into Earth orbit. Continued development will eventually increase this capacity to 130,000 kilograms, which should be enough to get a human crew to Mars.

But that's still 10,000 kilograms short of the old 1960's Saturn V design. Couldn't NASA just start building Saturn V rockets instead of making a brand new one? Well, no. 1960's technology doesn't work well with 21st-century technology. Imagine pulling an engine out of a 1960's car and trying to plug it into a vehicle from 2015. The vehicle's computer would roll its imaginary eyes and call you an idiot. 

NASA's New Space Launch System

Artist's rendering of what the SLS should look like.
Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

A Saturn V hasn't been built in decades, and in many ways it's a lost technology. The manufacturers who put the rocket together are mostly dead or retired, the facilities and tools used to construct the parts no longer exist, and the companies that retained all of the building manuals and documentation have essentially evaporated.

Even the raw materials have all changed—and NASA isn't going to load a 110 meter tall metal tube with kerosene and strap a bunch of astronauts to the top of it. Not in 2015. To top things off, NASA didn't even build the original Saturn V—they used contractors. And so will the SLS

The benefits of building a brand-new next-generation rocket is that it will provide NASA with a heavy-duty rocket for decades to come. And the longer the SLS remains in use, the more fine-tuned its construction becomes, and the cheaper and safer each subsequent launch should become. NASA's target is $500 million per SLS launch, a figure which doesn't factor in research and development of the initial technologies. $10 billion has been allocated from 2010 through 2017 just for developing the SLS.

Do The Math:::

If $10 billion is spent on developing the SLS and 13 of them are built (as with the Saturn V) and launched at $500 million per shot, that amounts to a total cost of $16.5 billion* for the whole program. This equals $1.27 billion per rocket launched, or 39.6% the cost of a Saturn V.

But if the SLS is used for decades and sees 100 launches, it'll amount to a total program cost of $60 billion ($500 million x 100 launches, plus $10 billion). This equals an average of only $600 million* per launch.

That's half the price of building a Saturn V, and only 18.75% the price of each Saturn V launch when factoring in research and development costs.

*Of course, this is assuming there are no budget overruns.
(There will be)

:::End The Math

In short, the Saturn V rocket was cutting-edge technology back in 1966 and it stretched the boundaries of innovation and manufacturing at that time. It's a technology that could've been used for decades and dozens of launches, with continued development bringing improved versions to light. But NASA's shift in direction from top-mounted crew capsules to upright-launching space shuttles saw the Saturn V become unusable for the next generation of spacecraft.

The Space Shuttle

Although it looked like a true 'spaceship,' the Space Shuttle was never designed to travel out of low-Earth orbit. If it had, the extra speed gained when re-entering Earth's atmosphere would have broken its wings apart.
Image Credit: NASA

NASA's massive investment in the Saturn V rocket ended up serving a singular purpose: putting humans on the Moon. And we haven't returned to the Moon because we discarded the technology required to do so. The Space Shuttle, which operated from 1981 to 2011, was never designed to get even 1,000 kilometers above Earth—and the Moon is 400 times further away than that. The shuttle was a 30-year dead end.

But NASA's Journey to Mars is a new starting point. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA began developing the technologies needed to put humans into deep space for the first time since the 1960's. While the premature abandonment of the Apollo and Saturn V programs 40 years ago likely cost NASA untold billions in investments gone to waste, the lessons learned along the way will now pave the way forward.

It was Isaac Newton who remarked in a letter dated from 1676,

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
— Isaac Newton

The giants were scientists who had come before him—innovators like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler—whose observations of the 'motions of the heavenly spheres' inspired Newton in his own work. Those giants are as much to thank for the first theory of gravity as Isaac Newton himself, just as NASA has the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle's launch system to thank for the future success of the SLS

Launch Vehicle Comparison

Comparing the Saturn V (left), Space Shuttle (center), and SLS (right).
Image Credit: SchuminWeb, NASA

As each new generation takes the best aspects of the old and builds upon it with new innovations, each new iteration looks similar to the last. Like the process of evolution, it's only after many generations that real differences begin to emerge.

Automakers have been evolving vehicles for decades, coming out with updated models each year that improve upon the past models (or are supposed to). Put a 1960's pickup truck and a 2015 pickup truck side by side and a common form may emerge, but under the hood isn't even in the same technological realm. It's the same with rockets—although the outside may look familiar, it's the technology inside that really counts.

Then, A Leviathan rears its alluring head...

"We're just gonna keep trying to make rocket technology better and better. I mean, I think the time frame for the SLS, you know sending people to Mars, is pretty far out there... It's cool to send one mission, sure, but that's not the thing that changes humanity's future."
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX

SpaceX has made its name developing the Falcon 9 series of rockets—the first launch vehicles to be entirely designed within the 21st century. Founded in 2002, SpaceX has gone from having its first-ever successful test launch in 2008 to becoming the primary competitor against Boeing for a lucrative NASA contract to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station as early as 2017

SpaceX has been so successful in developing its rocket technologies that many in the industry have called into question the U.S.'s decision to allocate $10 billion dollars having NASA develop the SLS when they could instead contract a company like SpaceX to develop a comparable rocket launch system at a fraction of the cost.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is capable of lifting 13,000 kilograms into Earth orbit at a price of $65 million per launch. To top things off, the company is currently experimenting with technologies to safely land the rocket after sending its payload into orbit, meaning the entire launch system could soon become re-usable and exponentially less expensive. NASA's comparable rocket, the Atlas V, can launch payloads between 10,000 to 18,000 kilograms, and the low-end rocket starts with a price-tag of $164 million. 

SpaceX Falcon 9 Landing Attempt:

To make matters more complicated for NASA, the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX's flagship heavy-lift rocket, is set to make its first test flight in 2016—at least a full year before NASA's SLS is put to the test. The Falcon Heavy is expected to be able to lift 53,000 kilograms into orbit for a price-tag of $150 million or less.

///Begin Cost Analysis

NASA's SLS is expected to lift 70,000 kilograms into orbit for $500 million per launch. That equals $7,142 dollars per kilogram.

But SpaceX's Falcon Heavy is expected to lift 53,000 kilograms into orbit for $150 million per launch. That equals $2,830 dollars per kilogram.

That means SpaceX will be able to put objects into orbit at 39.6% the cost of what NASA is able to do. Note: that's the exact same cost-differential between the Saturn V and SLS, given similar numbers of launches.

*Whether any of these figures turn out to be accurate is up for grabs (especially those from NASA).

///End Cost Analysis

An even bigger consideration is the fact that NASA's $500 million price-tag doesn't include research and development costs, which unavoidably come directly out of NASA's budget (and hence the taxpayer's pocket). On the other hand, SpaceX's $150 million price-tag doesn't directly include research and development costs either—instead, it includes profit.

NASA's spending on rocket technology is money that disappears forever, recuperated only in the form of scientific discoveries made by the probes it sends into space. But SpaceX's $150 million pricing of a Falcon Heavy is profitable. Every rocket that the company launches brings in revenue, and that revenue eventually recuperates any research and development costs over the long-term. And the more price-competitive SpaceX's rockets are, the more profits they'll be able to reel in.

Falcon 9 & Falcon Heavy

Private industry always seeks to provide the best possible value for the least possible price. Government agencies don't.
Image Credit: SpaceX

NASA has no incentive to keep costs down, nor any incentive to stretch out the use of their expensively-developed technologies. Whether the SLS costs $500 million per launch or $2 billion per launch, as a government agency, it knows that more funding will always be available if necessary. And since NASA's Journey to Mars is a government-mandated program (thanks, Obama), the U.S. has an active interest in ensuring its success—no matter the cost.

But SpaceX is inherently forced to be as cost-effective and efficient as possible, because not doing so cuts into their bottom line. If their rockets are too expensive, nobody will buy them, and the company will fail. If their rockets are unsafe, nobody will use them, and the company will fail. If they spend billions of dollars investing in technologies that don't bring about a positive return on investment, the company will probably go bankrupt and fail. In the space game, capitalism may become an astronaut's best insurance policy. 

In sum, the race to Mars begins with the marathon to build bigger and better rockets than ever before (and for a fraction of the price). But rockets are only designed to get astronauts from Earth's surface into Earth's orbit. Getting astronauts from there to Mars will require another vehicle altogether—a different kind of marathon.

Back in December of 2014, NASA's prototype Orion spacecraft completed it's first spaceflight test, launching into space atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket (the one that costs $350 million per shot) and reaching speeds of up to 32,000 kilometers per hour. This first test took the capsule to a distance of approximately 5,800 kilometers above Earth's surface, or nearly 15 times further away than the orbiting International Space Station, before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean unscathed.

This means that NASA's first test flight of its new deep-space crew capsule traveled further out into space than any human has in over 40 years. That's a good start. 

Orion: under construction

NASA's next-generation space capsule, in development since 2005.
Image Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak

Although it was an unmanned test flight, Orion is designed to carry a crew of up to 6 astronauts on future missions to deep space. Targeted goals include a manned orbit of the Moon in the early 2020's, a manned visit to an asteroid in the late 2020's, a manned mission to one of Mars' moons in the early 2030's, and an eventual manned mission to the surface of Mars itself by the late 2030's. 

Designed to be launched atop NASA's SLS rocket, the combination of space capsule and heavy-duty rocket is a throwback to the 1960's-era Apollo-Saturn V combination, but utilizing cutting-edge 21st-century technology. Nostalgia aside, these two pieces of hardware are the cornerstone of NASA's Journey to Mars program. Get familiar with them (especially Orion), because they'll probably be in the public eye for decades to come. 

NASA is investing all of their hopes and dreams into this little spaceship. They've even conducted tests as comprehensive as simulating whether or not Orion can still land safely back on Earth if two of its three main parachutes fail—the answer is yes, it can. And that's good, because the last thing we want happening to any astronaut after months (or even years) spent in deep space is to have them returning home looking like a bug on a windshield. 

Just a routine test

NASA engineers simulated Orion landing with only one working parachute. It landed safely, but a bit hard.
Image Credit: NASA and Jason Davis.

Just one of the capabilities of Orion includes being able to bring astronauts into Earth orbit, rendezvous with a lunar lander module, make its way to the Moon, drop the astronauts off on the lunar surface, and remain in orbit for up to six months unattended while astronauts conduct lunar operations below. And thus we have the plot of an awesome movie. 

Unfortunately, despite the progress being made with Orion (it's been in development since 2005), NASA recently announced that its first crewed flight may be pushed back as late as 2023, after having been originally planned for 2021. NASA is still on track to launch another un-crewed test of Orion in 2018, during which the SLS will send it zipping around the Moon and back to Earth. 

To put things in perspective: NASA began working on the Apollo concept in 1961, and its first manned flight took place in 1968—only 7 years from concept to completion. Development of the Space Shuttle was green-lit in 1969, and the first manned flight took place in 1981—12 years from concept to completion, largely due to unforeseen complexities in developing a spaceship that can land on Earth like an airplane. 

If Orion doesn't see its first human crew until 2023, that gives it an 18 year development cycle. This is especially concerning given that Orion's original goal had been to return humans to the surface of the Moon before the year 2020—it's 2015 now, and NASA isn't even capable of putting astronauts on the International Space Station with its own hardware, let alone putting them to the Moon. 

I sense an Imminent Mention of SpaceX...


NASA is already contracting SpaceX to fly astronauts to the International Space Station beginning in 2017 using their Dragon crew capsule. In 2010, the Dragon became the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to be recovered successfully from orbit—this after only six years since initial developments began (and without the billions of dollars of funding received by certain government agencies). 

Dragon Delivers to the ISS

SpaceX has been resupplying the International Space Station since 2012.
Image Credit: NASA

Although SpaceX has yet to conduct a live test of its Falcon rocket or Dragon capsule with humans on board, a mission scheduled for April 2017 is planned to send astronauts to the International Space Station for 14 days. If successful, it will be the first time that a commercially built rocket sent humans to space and the first time a commercially built crew capsule carried humans into space. 

And, as in typical SpaceX fashion, at a fraction of the cost. While NASA is building its future on the skeletons of its past, SpaceX is forging ahead and ushering in an age of 21st-century commercial spaceflight. How will the agency continue to compete?

This is part one of a three-part series. Check the rest out below:

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The Race to Mars is Happening, Share It:

Also, check out this montage of NASA's past 50 years of Mars exploration: