Why it’s impossible to put an American on Mars during Trump’s presidency, according to space experts

Interplanetary travel is harder than you’d think.
Interplanetary travel is harder than you’d think.
Image: NASA
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On Tuesday (Jan. 22), we learned that Donald Trump offered NASA an unlimited budget to drop everything it’s doing and put an American on Mars by the end of his first term, according to a tell-all book written by former White House communications aide Cliff Sims.

NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot Jr. rebuffed the offer, probably because, according to every space expert we asked, it’s impossible. Even if, as Trump reportedly suggested to Lightfoot, “we sent NASA’s budget through the roof, but focused entirely on that instead of whatever else you’re doing now,” there’s no way we could put a human on Mars by the end of a second Trump term in January 2025.

The challenges

This is a massive engineering problem…

A manned mission to Mars is astronomically difficult. Going to the Moon took three days. A trip to Mars would take six to eight months each way, plus the time it would take astronauts to explore the planet when they get there, according to Dale Skran, vice president of the National Space Society, an advocacy group that promotes human space exploration. Skran estimates the whole mission would last between two and three years—somewhere between 200 and 300 times longer than a journey to the Moon.

“In engineering, we think about orders of magnitude,” Skran says. (Ten is an order of magnitude above one, and 100 is an order of magnitude above 10.) “Any food you bring to Mars has to last two orders of magnitude longer [than what you’d bring to the Moon]. There’s more than 100 times as many days for astronauts to get sick or injured. There’s two orders of magnitude more radiation than on a trip to the Moon.”

“That’s not just a linear increase in difficulty,” concurs Casey Dreier, senior space policy advisor for the Planetary Society, a research, education, and advocacy group that promotes space exploration. “It’s exponentially harder.”

To get a sense of how far we are from cracking all these engineering problems, just think about the issue of landing. The heaviest payload we’ve ever put on Mars is the Curiosity rover, which has a mass of roughly one ton (about 2,000 lbs). You might recall the almost comically complex rocket-powered sky crane NASA engineers had to devise to land the rover on the Martian surface over the course of what they called “seven minutes of terror.” Chris Carberry, CEO of Explore Mars, an advocacy group promoting Mars research, says Curiosity is tiny compared to human landers, which would have a mass of at least 20 metric tons.

…and it won’t go any faster just because we spend more money on it

“Money can get you so far,” says Dreier. “But any engineer would tell you that throwing more engineers at a problem doesn’t make it get solved faster.”

“The concept that enough money can accomplish anything by any time in engineering is fallacious,” writes Daniel Adamo, co-founder of the Space Enterprise Institute, which aims to educate the public about human activity in space, in an email.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the engineering expression ‘you can’t get nine women to have a baby in one month,’” Adamo adds, “and I’m sure that’s true regardless of how much you pay them.”

The limitations of celestial mechanics

Because Earth and Mars orbit the sun at different rates, they only align in just the right way to make a trip between them every 26 months. The next launch window won’t come until July 2020. If we miss that one, we’re out of luck until 2022. And if we miss that window, we’re held up until 2024.

That means any minor delays along the way to a Mars launch can quickly compound into two-year setbacks. “If you want to launch to Mars quickly, you have to meet these unmoveable deadlines,” says Dreier, “and that’s very difficult with so many things going on in this process.”

It takes too long to get there (safely)

As mentioned earlier, a roundtrip Mars mission would take two or three years. But before you set off on a three-year journey through space, you probably want to test your equipment out (closer to home) for at least that long to make sure it’ll last. Even if we could sprint through all the engineering problems at lightning speed, the years of testing would probably push us past our 2025 deadline.

“You could rush through without testing,” Carberry notes, “but that’s not advisable if you want your crew to survive.”

Carberry points out that even extremely well-funded military-equipment development projects can take many years—and several more years to work out all the kinks once it’s been launched. If you need a reason to feel pessimistic, look no further than the trillion-dollar F-35 program.

The Problem of Political Will

There was a time when US presidents gave the country’s space program virtually unlimited funding. Throughout the 1960s, the Apollo mission doubled its budget several times, eventually consuming nearly 20% of the country’s discretionary budget—all the money left over after paying for mandatory programs like social security. But, Dreier points out, that was a different time.

“You had broad political agreement that getting to the Moon had a potentially life-and-death level of national importance in the context of the Cold War,” he says. “NASA’s not even open right now because of the shutdown.”

Anyway, we shouldn’t

Remember that Trump’s offer was to hand NASA an unlimited budget if they focused entirely on Mars instead of whatever else they’re doing now. “Even if it were possible, it would be a really bad idea,” says Skran.

“You’d have to stop all missions, turn off all the rovers, turn off all the Earth satellites, and lay off thousands of scientists,” says Dreier. “You’d have to stop all the robotics research, stop research into the history of the cosmos, turn off the Hubble Telescope and let it drift into space.”

The verdict

Dale Skran: “It’s not gonna happen.”

Daniel Adamo: “Even with unlimited funds, I don’t see how a program to fly humans to Mars and back could even get organized in the next 6 years (assuming DJT gets reelected here), let alone complete the feat.”

Casey Dreier: “Assuming the money showed up, there’s a 50/50 chance it could work. It would take an extraordinary amount of money, be extraordinarily risky, and would probably be the most difficult piece of organization and engineering in history.”

Even Chris Carberry, who heads an organization dedicated to promoting missions to Mars, is skeptical: “We’re in a really good position to get something done, but it’s just doubtful that we’ll be on the surface of Mars by the end of the president’s second term, if he has one.”