Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: The inevitability of the red planet, saving Space Camp and the Ligado fight gets real.
If all goes according to plan, NASA has sent its Perseverance rover on the way to Mars. That gives us about seven months to mull over if the mission is a good idea.
Well, I take that back. Dispatching not just a nuclear powered robot car to Mars, but also the first helicopter to fly on another planet, is definitely a good idea. Yet the commentary that sticks out in the recent flood of martian analyses is this discussion of the opportunity costs incurred by NASA’s institutional focus on the red planet.
Naturally, the discussants are devoted to some of the other fun stuff in the solar system—David Brown is publishing a book about the effort to investigate Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Rebecca Boyle is writing a cultural and scientific history of the moon. But they make important observations about what the apparently inevitable march to Mars is pushing aside.
In the new century, NASA has been to Mars eight times, including five surface landings. Remote sensors deployed by NASA and other space agencies have collected enormous amounts of data about the red planet, some of which remains unexploited by scientists. Meanwhile, less plentiful information about other astronomical bodies has been wrung clean by researchers, and the massive image dumps from American Mars rovers that felt ground-breaking in 2012 are largely ignored by the public eight years later.
The Perseverance rover, originally sold as a money-saver that would copy the previous Curiosity rover, will cost more than its predecessor, which itself was more than $1 billion over-budget. Those overages, and plans for a new Mars mission to return samples collected by Perseverance to the Earth, have led to the termination of a generation of other deep space programs, which might have sailed a boat on a moon of Saturn, plunged into the oceans of Europa, or flown an airship in the atmosphere of Venus.
And that’s before we start talking about the cost of a human lunar return in 2024 or keeping the International Space Station on orbit after 2028. Indeed, Brown and Boyle connect the ineffable lure of human spaceflight to the Mars fixation: The red planet is inhospitable to life, but it’s by far the most feasible destination for human explorers in our solar system besides the moon. The relentless focus on Mars can sometimes feel like an effort to justify future human missions, rather than an effort to learn more about the solar system.
Yet there is some pragmatism at work. An obsession with putting humans on Mars drives SpaceX, but Elon Musk’s annual rejiggering of his “Mars rocket,” the Starship, has seen it become more and more the moon rocket that the US space agency is likely to need. The burgeoning private space sector seems likely to lower the cost of launching deep space missions; open up new technologies for cheaper exploration, like the cubesats that accompanied last year’s US landing on Mars; and perhaps share some of NASA’s costs of low-earth orbit, allowing for a wider view of space exploration.
But this considered reassessment of the red planet as a destination for space probes is a reminder that there are frontiers, and then there are frontiers—NASA can’t let what it knows about Mars become an obstacle to what it could learn about the rest of solar system.
The first successful landing on Mars is credited to Viking 1, a NASA lander that arrived in 1976. (In 1971, a Soviet precursor landed but stopped working after 110 seconds.) Here’s a shot of Viking when it was being tested on Earth:
The Perseverance rover weighs nearly twice as much as Viking 1, and its robotic arm is almost as long as Viking itself. But like modern rovers, Viking could take selfies—here’s an image of the US flag on Mars, as well as “the U.S. Bicentennial symbol and a student designed Viking emblem.” All three are mounted on Viking’s nuclear power system, naturally.
Space exploration forces us to think a lot about decontamination. So does an epidemic. Less than 20 years ago, over 600 of the 813 deaths related to SARS took place in either Hong Kong or mainland China. Nursing home residents were roughly five times more likely to become infected with the respiratory illness. When the novel coronavirus arrived, these care homes were ready.
Save Space Camp! Dorkier than band camp, but arguably more important to US technological superiority, the non-profit US Space and Rocket Center Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, is in danger. Like every endeavor that involves getting large groups of people to hang out together, it has seen a massive plunge in revenue due to the coronavirus. The organization has turned to internet crowdfunding to raise $1.5 million and keep its doors open. Of course, that’s chump change if our local rocket billionaires wanted to chip in. Heck, saving space camp might be a better way for aerospace companies to deploy their lobbying budgets in the never-ending struggle to win Alabama senator Richard Shelby’s favor.
Annals of the Dragon Riders. NASA is still working on the precise date that astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will finish the first mission of SpaceX’s crew Dragon spacecraft by returning to the Earth for an ocean splashdown. The goal is this weekend, but weather forecasts have proven difficult, alongside tight margins—for the initial landing, ocean wind speeds must be less than about 10 mph, which is about the average at Cape Canaveral. Still, NASA officials expect they have about the entire month of August to bring the Dragon back.
In related news, NASA announced the third crew that will fly onboard the Dragon during a flight in 2021, which includes astronaut Megan McArthur. McArthur happens to be Behnken’s wife, and aside from being #relationshipgoals, her assignment symbolizes the changing nature of the astronaut corps. The reminder is extra timely after the passing of Rene Carpenter, the last surviving spouse of a Mercury astronaut and a pioneer in her own right.
Ligad-NO. The battle between the FCC and the Defense Department over the telecom firm Ligado continues to fester. Oklahoma senator James Inhofe is blocking the renomination of an FCC commissioner, Michael O’Reilly, until he commits to reverse the agency’s decision to allow Ligado to build out a new communications network. The US military is worried Ligado’s plans will lead to interference with the US GPS system. Inhofe’s decision to hold up the nomination is mostly symbolic for now, but if he or other opposed senators hold out, O’Reilly’s term will expire in January 2021 and the FCC will have just two commissioners from each party, increasing the odds of a deadlocked telecom regulator.
Biden Space Policy Watch. Sean O’Keefe, a former NASA administrator under president George W. Bush, and former astronaut John Grunsfeld, co-wrote an op-ed endorsing former vice president Joe Biden’s bid for the White House. The two didn’t fill in any detail on what Biden’s approach to space policy might be, but rather made the case that Biden is capable of employing basic presidential leadership to boost the US space agency.