Originally published in January 2019, this post continues to be perfectly relevant and useful in 2022 and the foreseeable future.
Worse yet, the one historically proven way that would enable NASA to send people to Mars … is the one thing we never want to happen.
The Big Roadblock
We need solutions! NASA’s direction isn’t working. I want to see people on the surface of Mars just as much as anyone else. In fact, that’s the reason I’m writing this. However, there’s a big roadblock preventing us from going to Mars.
The technical challenge is one thing. Obviously, to get to Mars, a lot of research, development, building, and testing is still required. It won’t be easy, and it might get messy. But the show-stopper is the funding. NASA doesn’t have a revenue stream large enough to send astronauts to the surface of Mars.
And it hasn’t been large enough since the 1960’s when the Apollo program put the first people on the Moon. This revenue stream is, of course, the NASA budget.
Inconsistent and Insufficient…Consistently
Even when various presidents have proposed ambitious Moon or Mars objectives, Congress has been more level-headed with the funding. NASA’s budget is set by Congress and is consistently insufficient for bold plans to return humans to the Moon’s surface or to go to Mars.
And can you blame them? Every time a new president gets elected, the White House changes NASA’s plans. It’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Political direction is consistently inconsistent.
The De Facto NASA Budget
This “more level-headed” funding (a relative term) from Congress that I referred to is apparent in the facts. NASA was created around 60 years ago, and that gives us 60 years of budgetary data as evidence.
This graph shows that, ever since around 1970, the de facto level of funding for NASA has been roughly $20(+/-5) billion per year, adjusted for inflation to 2018 dollars.
Considering it’s been at this level for nearly 50 years, it’s probably a good bet it’ll remain there as we go forward. We can’t count on NASA’s budget rising to unrealistic levels. I would like to see it go higher, as do many others, but history says that’s just wishful thinking, at best. (Congress, please prove me wrong!)
So, What Might this Level of Funding be Capable of?
Again, judging from history, it looks like we’re able to develop roughly one major system while we concurrently operate one major system. Some overlap is inevitable and expected, but 1 and 1 looks about right. Please note, I’m focusing only on major human space exploration projects.
One and One
For example (refer to the budget graph), while we were developing the Space Shuttle system, we were at the tail end of operating the Saturn V rockets (and only briefly had people onboard Skylab in 1973/74). In other words, developing one major system (Shuttle) while operating one major system (Saturn V).
Once Space Shuttle became operational, that freed up funding to build the International Space Station (ISS) (operating one major system (Shuttle), developing one major system (ISS)).
Once ISS was up and running, the Space Shuttles were retired. That allowed funding for the next major project, Constellation…that later whack-a-moled into the Space Launch System (SLS).
Which is where we are today…developing one major system (SLS) and operating one major system (ISS).
One and One Going Forward
Next in line for NASA is turning over ISS operations to private industry and getting SLS operational so we can develop the next major system, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G). Meaning, once again, NASA will be developing one major system (LOP-G) while operating one major system (SLS).
“That’s not an opinion, that’s an observation.”
When it comes to major human space exploration systems, NASA is hard pressed to get much more out of its de facto budget than developing one major system while operating one major system. That’s not an opinion, that’s an observation.
Is This Going to be a Problem?
We can build our Mars assets one major system at a time. But, here’s the problem. Getting to Mars will require developing and/or operating several major systems concurrently. Here’s a back of the napkin list of most of the big-ticket items:
- SLS (multiple launches).
- Earth to Mars transit ship(s) (plus, parked in Mars orbit for 2+ years, then return to Earth).
- Mars descent/ascent cargo and human-rated vehicles.
- Mars surface habitats and infrastructure capable of sustaining its crew for 2+ years.
- Lunar surface activities/facilities needed to support the research and testing of multiple subsystems and capabilities needed for Mars.
Except maybe for the lunar surface activities/facilities, all these major systems will need to be operational concurrently when we go to Mars.
It’s Already a Problem
However, the problem starts much sooner than Mars. When LOP-G becomes operational, the plan is to develop lunar surface activities/facilities and eventually have people in those facilities. Which means we will be concurrently operating SLS and LOP-G and lunar surface facilities. This will push our NASA budget graph beyond the 50-year norm, right off the bat.
In addition, if the de facto budget constrains us to developing one major Mars system at a time, then the systems developed first are possibly reaching the end of their reliable lifespans by the time the final systems are complete.
These are major systems, operating in extreme environments, and each take a significant amount of time to develop, test, and become operational.
Unfortunately, to get these systems operating concurrently, it looks like we’ll need a boost to NASA’s budget that’s so significant and out of the norm that it hasn’t happened in nearly 50 years!
Is this possible? What will it take?
“…so significant and out of the norm that it hasn’t happened in nearly 50 years!”
We do have a precedence. The Apollo program…the big peak in funding at the beginning of NASA’s existence.
Much has been written about this, and it’s widely accepted that the Apollo program was in response to an extreme threat to our national security (communism, the Soviet Union).
Once that race was won, NASA’s budget was slashed. And there it’s been for nearly 50 years.
The One Thing We Never Want to Happen
Sadly, the one reason, based on precedence, that might get us enough funding for an ambitious journey to land astronauts on the surface of Mars, is the one thing we never want to happen: a major threat to our national security.
Based on history, if Congress funds NASA to send people to the surface of Mars, it won’t be because it’s a cool thing to do, or for scientific exploration, or the good of humanity. It will be in response to something that’s seriously troubling to our nation and forces the White House and Congress to do something.
An extremely weak and undesirable position.
Don’t Worry Though…There’s a Better Way
NASA’s de facto budget can create something massively better than an Apollo-style trip to Mars or the Moon. It might even give Congress a sensible reason to increase NASA’s budget beyond the de facto ceiling.
I’ll fill you in…. But first, I need to torture your psyche a little more. Muah, ha ha ha ha.
Let’s say Congress does give NASA the money it needs for an Apollo-style human trip to Mars.
A few brave souls land on Mars, set up house for a couple years, explore the surroundings, complete their objectives, and then make it back to Earth safely. A highly successful, momentous mission. History repeating itself.
What might be the outcome and ramifications?
PEW on you!
We already know, from this recent PEW Research Center survey, that people think sending human beings to Mars or the Moon should be at the bottom of NASA’s priorities.
(Although, I bet a video of an astronaut literally doing a moonwalk on Mars, à la Michael Jackson, would go viral all over the internet, big time. Admit it. You’d watch it. I know you would. I want to watch it right now. If NASA could get the world-wide revenue generated from that one video, it’d probably pay for the entire trip! Well, maybe not. My point is, people would love it.)
Anyways, I’m sure you can imagine lots of outcry from the general public, talk of wasted taxes, more important things to do with our money, etc., etc. Nothing new or unexpected there.
Also, there likely would be plenty of outcry from within Congress. Support to continue would vanish, and NASA’s budget would be slashed. In fact, that’s exactly what already happened…50 years ago…to the Apollo program.
Do we want a repeat? No. Well…maybe? Better than nothing? Mute question however, because funding likely won’t materialize in the first place. Sorry, that’s not my preference, it’s just a prediction based on the half-century of evidence.
Hold the Phone! There’s More at Stake This Time Around
The world has changed over the last five decades and now there’s an important ramification to consider. Opportunity cost.
Opportunity Cost!!! Wholly Moly!
Question. What is the most important, powerful, beneficial, significant return we can realistically gain from investing our time, money and other resources on space…today? It’s not going to Mars, or getting there before China, or going back to the Moon.
“It’s fundamental, not only to our national security (in a world that’s becoming more space-capable every year), but to our future in space and on Earth.”
The way I see it, the most desirable and achievable outcome is the ability to stay there. To make our presence sustainable. To be able to remain there permanently if we want to, regardless of NASA’s budget or shifts in political direction.
To do this, we must create a self-supporting in-space economy (see definition below). This is orders of magnitude more powerful and beneficial than focusing on just going to the Moon or Mars, and then having to return and put our rockets in museums when the funding runs out.
This Definition is Super Important!
“In-space economy” means different things to different people. Here’s Space Centric’s definition, and why it’s important.
In-Space Economy: products and services in space, that are bought, sold, and used in space, that are created entirely from the raw materials and other resources found in space.
Basically, “in space” all around. Note: just because something is physically in space doesn’t necessarily mean it’s part of the in-space economy, as defined here. A largely self-sufficient “civilization” on the Moon could be considered an in-space economy.
Critical for Plotting an Effective Course
You might think this definition is overly restrictive or unnecessary, but it’s critical for plotting a course that achieves the goal of our outcome thinking. The outcome being: a vibrant, self-supporting, sustainable space civilization (many decades or centuries in the future).
Build an in-space economy that grows to self-sufficiency, and you’ve just created a sustainable space civilization. They are one and the same.
A Powerful Guideline
This definition now becomes a powerful guideline for developing NASA projects, business ideas, efforts, investments, education, legislation and policies that produce direct progress towards this goal.
The larger this in-space economy, the more likely it’ll progress to a sustainable and vibrant space civilization.
Destination is a Troublesome Distraction (Say that 5 times fast! I dare you.)
When we focus on any destination, we:
- Delay our ability to overcome funding limitations.
- Delay our ability to thrive in space.
- Delay our ability to explore these destinations and all the others in our solar system.
- Miss an important window of opportunity.
Worse yet, instead of being delayed, these abilities might not develop at all. This is the opportunity cost. It’s fundamental, not only to our national security (in a world that’s becoming more space-capable every year), but to our future in space and on Earth.
A Self-Supporting In-Space Economy
Growing an in-space economy, such as a civilization on the Moon, is something we can start doing right now, with the proper focus. It would gradually become more capable, involve more and more individual businesses, and support NASA’s goals along the way.
Every Type of Business
This ecosystem on the Moon would grow organically. Not only would the businesses, government entities, and individuals create various products and services, they would need various products and services.
Supply and demand would grow, and the variety of products and services would become more diverse. The in-space economy would gradually need less and less support from NASA and become self-supporting.
Eventually (many decades or centuries in the future), most things that people like to do for their livelihood and in their spare time, and nearly every type of business, employer and job that exists on Earth today would also exist in space.
A Free Byproduct
“Space exploration” would be a free byproduct of creating an in-space economy…it’s a two for-one-deal. Innovative people at the various companies would:
- Learn how to create products and services using space resources.
- Make new discoveries.
- Improve robotics and rovers.
- Eventually progress to human activities.
- Find solutions to problems unique to space.
- Use the unique properties of space to find solutions to problems on Earth.
- Give NASA the freedom to expand its horizons further out, thanks to a supply of less expensive and more convenient in-space products and services (as opposed to launching them from Earth).
Creating an in-space economy would be massively beneficial on all fronts, and it’s more than just “business”. It’s about people like you and me doing the things we love, solving puzzles, satisfying our curiosities, following our passions, and building upon our successes one step at a time.
Cut to Reality…
However, if we continue down the road we’ve been on for the last 50 years…developing an Earth-centric space economy and aiming for an Apollo-style Mars adventure…then our limited funding, talent, and time will be spent in a way that’s ineffective in creating an in-space economy. The critical mass to become economically self-sufficient won’t materialize.
No in-space economy…no space civilization…no escape from low Earth orbit and the limitations of NASA’s budget.
Window of Opportunity
Several important factors are lined up and favor the formation of an in-space economy.
- The internet has allowed widespread growth of technical expertise and access to knowledge specific to space and entrepreneurship (and all other areas).
- There’s a massive amount of momentum, desire, and actual progress in creating viable space businesses. Entrepreneurs passionate about space are increasingly being taken seriously by investors. Space is no longer a government-only activity.
- NASA has advanced our world to the point where an in-space economy is possible.
- Forward-thinking billionaires are putting their entrepreneurial talents and wealth to work creating launch systems that make sense from a commercial standpoint.
- The White House, Congress and NASA all support the development of commercial space.
- Our economy is generally in good shape…for now.
Threats to this Window
Especially in the beginning, NASA will play a huge role in the success of creating an in-space economy. As always, NASA’s budget is limited and there are economic and political pressures on government to control spending and direct it to where needed most.
In addition, many of these pressures are hard to predict, yet directly or indirectly impact how much funding (our taxes) is available for NASA.
- Major hurricanes and other natural disasters requiring huge federal government disaster relief.
Although a significant portion of these costs were likely paid by insurance and local governments, it’s easy to see the pressure on Congress to control optional spending, i.e. NASA’s budget. The three costliest hurricanes listed for 2017 alone total up to nearly 14 years’ worth of NASA’s entire budget.
- Military action, potential wars.
- Economic recession (remember the subprime mortgage crisis? The dot-com crash?).
- Controlling the national deficit.
- Unpredictable events like the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Etc., etc…
All these economic pressures combine and tend to negate the likelihood of NASA getting the large increase in funding it would need for a visit to Mars. These pressures aren’t new. They’ve always been there, and they probably always will.
On the entrepreneurial space side of the equation, there’s no guarantee the billionaires and millionaires funding the development of new commercial launch capabilities and other space businesses will continue investing in space.
Political, legal, regulatory, economic, personal and other issues can change the game overnight. One bad day in the stock market can wipe out billions in net worth and the ability to continue funding a project that might not pay off for decades. There are many reasons an investor might decide to take their efforts and money elsewhere.
Window with Bad Hinges
This window of opportunity could close without warning and collapse efforts to create an in-space economy. Once this window closes, there’s no guarantee it’ll reopen in a timely fashion and with a suitable set of circumstances that supports the development of an in-space economy.
But Aren’t we Already Building an In-Space Economy?
You would think so…but no. The key here is going back to the above definition: products and services in space, that are bought, sold, and used in space, that are created entirely from the raw materials and other resources found in space. This is the underpinning of a sustainable in-space economy and future space civilization on the Moon, Mars and elsewhere.
Creating most of the products, infrastructure and services needed for a space civilization will be cheaper and more practical using space resources than launching everything from Earth. In fact, it probably won’t be possible any other way. We’re not there yet.
Certainly, progress is being made in the right direction. Government funded research on the materials available on the Moon, Mars and asteroids, and how to use those materials, is growing. Private companies are working on ways to harvest and use space resources from a practical standpoint. Objects are being 3d printed on the ISS (albeit, using material launched from Earth). The Mars 2020 rover will attempt to make oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere. NASA supports the development of commercial space businesses and wants commercial involvement in upcoming lunar activities. And so on.
However, when you apply the above definition to the world-wide $350+ billion per year space economy, the surprising revelation is that we have no in-space economy…it’s $0! Despite billions of dollars being spent every year, we haven’t built an in-space economy.
Granted, NASA hasn’t been focused on creating an in-space economy. It’s a high bar to meet that requires a different approach. Using space resources, such as material on the Moon, Mars, or asteroids, to make various products that others want to buy and use in space is a very significant challenge, to say the least, if not a revolutionary transformation.
And it requires private space companies (i.e. businesses created by and employing people like you and me) to play a much larger role than in the past.
Initially, purchasing products and services created and used in space from space resources might be more expensive for NASA than creating those items using Earth resources and launching them from Earth.
However, NASA would be buying more than just those products and services…they would be creating a new economy and new capabilities…a double bang for the buck and an outcome important to all government agencies.
“This isn’t about “space”. Space is just a location. This is about us, every aspect of our society and government, our day-to-day lives, our future.”
Congress, NASA, and all other government agencies need to get behind this idea in a meaningful way, i.e. with funding, partnerships, project agreements and legislative approval.
This isn’t about “space”. Space is just a location. This is about us, every aspect of our society and government, our day-to-day lives, our future.
It’s Time to Pivot Modify
This isn’t so much a change in direction as it is an update to the method. NASA is focused on going back to the Moon then on to Mars, not creating an in-space economy. With a few meaningful tweaks to the approach, NASA can still be on the landing path to Mars, yet help make the difference between either:
a) Developing one major system while operating one major system, with a (questionable?) sense that we’ll someday make it to Mars, or
b) Creating a sustainable and growing in-space economy that organically leads to Mars.
Do we continue with a methodology that limits the possibilities? Or do we want the ability to grow?
Here Are Some Potential Actions:
- Purchase products and services from companies that are “In-Space Economy Certified”. These are companies whose primary goal is creating an in-space economy.
- The National Space Policy says NASA isn’t supposed to create a capability that already exists commercially. Extend this to developing space resources and in-space services. If a company is trying to create a product or service that uses space resources, and NASA needs that product or service in space, then NASA should support that development, and commit to using those products and services instead of ones launched from Earth.
- For the upcoming Mars-focused research and development on the Moon: award these projects to “In-Space Economy Certified” companies.
- Include an “In-Space Economy” requirement in government contracts. Where applicable, a certain minimum percentage of the contract should be sourced from “In-Space Economy Certified”companies.
- Direct all government agencies to support the growth of an in-space economy.
- Create new companies that are focused on forming an in-space economic ecosystem.
- Act now, while the window of opportunity is still open. Get this ecosystem established before the window closes.
Not Your Parents’ Commercial Space Activity
It’s no longer enough to support just any commercial space activity. In contrast to the current Earth-centric space economy, we need to focus on commercial space activity that’s centered on the use of space resources, and that creates and actively grows an in-space economic ecosystem. Otherwise, we won’t be making effective progress towards our future in space.
Mars Roadblock? Busted…at Least in Theory.
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” This is a quote often credited to Abraham Lincoln and Peter Drucker.
But, when it comes to NASA’s budget and human space exploration, I prefer this modification: The best way to predict the future is to look at the past. The best way to change the future is to create it yourself.
We’re on a path to Mars that’s going nowhere. We’ve reached the financial Mars roadblock. NASA’s budget has been at its sustainable limit for the last 50 years. Unless we do something different, our future in space is going to be a lackluster déjà vu experience.
To get past this budgetary limitation, we need to create the ability to grow. Unlike an Apollo-style trip to Mars or return to the Moon (neither of which are popular priorities and requires unlikely and unrealistic large increases to NASA’s budget), creating and growing a self-supporting in-space economy leads us forward with increasing returns.
A self-supporting in-space economy is the limitless fuel for space exploration. This is how we’ll bust through that Mars gate doing 98!
The fastest, most realistic way to get people on the surface of Mars, is to first create an in-space economy. Let’s change the future!
- Sound like a good idea?
- Are you concerned about NASA spending and the cost to send people back to the Moon and on to Mars?
- Think people like you and me and the middle-schooler that fixes your computer should be inspired to create innovative space businesses?
- Like the idea of a self-supporting in-space economy/civilization on the Moon?
Please join us in making positive changes! Share this post on social media and elsewhere!
Updated 12-10-2019: Minor wording changes. Removed info relating to Space Centric membership, which is no longer offered.
Updated 5/6/2020: Covid-19 impact added. NASA’s “Moon to Mars” nomenclature changed to “The Path to Mars”. Minor wording changes. Introduced the idea of classifying certain businesses as “In-Space Economy Certified”.
Reviewed 1/2/2021: Just as relevant as ever, if not more so.