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Consider one-way Mars mission, Gavin says

Joseph Gavin
Joseph Gavin

The following article was originally published Feb. 10 in "What Matters," a monthly alumni opinion column on the MIT Alumni Association web site. It is reprinted here with permission. For more information, see

In 1998, Joe Gavin (S.B. 1941, S.M.), former COO and president of Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. and former director of the Apollo Lunar Module Program, sent a proposal to Ed Crawley, then chair of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. This proposal called for a one-way manned mission to Mars.

The MIT Alumni Association recently had a chance to talk to Gavin about this proposal in light of NASA's current Mars programs as well as President Bush's pro-Mars strategy.

Q. Your proposal suggests that we need more robotic missions to Mars like the Pathfinder mission (1997). How did this proposal come into being, and how do the current missions of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers size up? Also, what more do we need to do before sending humans to Mars?

A. The Apollo program was terminated leaving potentially interesting lunar exploration undone. Despite its success, this program was criticized in some quarters as "a huge expense to bring back a couple of bags of rocks." Many of the early Mars studies (patterned after Apollo) and especially the 1992 "90 day" study by NASA appeared very complex and many times more expensive than Apollo.

In looking at the mission segments and sequences with the purpose of finding a simpler solution more likely to succeed and more likely to have a future, two steps came to mind. First, a far more extensive robotic exploration with much larger, more capable and longer-range rovers seems needed to determine if and when sending people makes sense. Then and only then would it be reasonable to send a manned mission to set up a base on Mars with the intent and commitment to stay as colonists.

Q. How would we select a crew and what might be their qualifications?

A. Crew selection should probably focus on fit, mature individuals of various skills, possibly in their 50s with grown and established families. Appropriate incentives could be evolved. I think that there would be no lack of volunteers.

Q. Does the technology exist to create a sustainable living apparatus for humans on Mars?

A. Yes, with prepositioned supplies and continuing periodic support. The support missions are divorced from basic mission success, have some flexibility in timing, and can be planned so that no one support mission is critical to the survival of the Mars base.

Q. In your proposal, you recommend sending unmanned supply missions before and after launch as a method of not only properly supplying humans on the planet, but of cutting costs as well. Wouldn't these additional missions just raise the bottom line even more? What financial realities could we learn from the Apollo mission in acquiring funds to support a manned Mars mission?

All the truly innovative projects undertaken since 1950 have clearly shown that it is impossible to estimate accurately the schedule and the cost. While schedule targets must be set, the program should be managed within an annual cost ceiling. The priorities should be mission success/safety, then schedule, then cost.

The total cost would continue to increase with the longevity of the operation of the Mars base. Whether the Mars base is to grow more self-sufficient or whether it is eventually grown in size and numbers is probably beyond our ability to estimate.

Q. Given President Bush's current pro-Mars policies, will your proposal finally make it into the hands of key decision-makers at NASA or other space agencies? If so, what are the chances it might be considered?

The current administration, most politicians and many industrial leaders are so intent on the next month, the next quarter or the next election that I see no likelihood that the one-way mission would have enough priority to gain serious consideration. I question whether the current policy-makers really grasp the complexities of the announced future direction for NASA.

I am not actively promoting my views; it would take a detailed study--perhaps needing 10 or 12 months' effort by a competent team to explore the potential for a one-way mission and its follow-up. Such a study might provide a convincing argument for this approach. A joint MIT, Draper and industry team could do this.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 14, 2004.

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