Going to Mars, It's Not All Rocket Science

Posted by: Eric Johnson '92, NASA T-bird, TIAA Member on Thursday, October 5, 2017


Going to Mars, It's Not All Rocket Science


An old African proverb says if you want to go quickly, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.



Spacefaring - surprisingly, it’s not all rocket science. International political risk matters to space programs just like its terrestrial counterpart, global trade. Your first impression of the International Space Station (ISS) may be a complex, orbiting laboratory, but it is also a collaborative effort of several nations with a common goal. The next collaborative effort needed in space is inhabiting Mars. What would be required to reach and sustain human life on Mars? It’s every bit as complicated as you would imagine, even more so. Success would require multilateral, multinational space programs bringing adversarial nations to common ground, reducing military hostilities in order to advance our civilizational range by inhabiting another planet



Astronauts and cosmonauts alike can’t see the man made lines of Earth while zooming at Mach 22 through space. Yet, their chain of command recognizes the political tautness impacting space programs. Cooperation in space requires significant cross-border collaboration beyond a technical and procedural realm. It is this challenge of the next generation of space exploration that drives the international space community today. What political risks would an international collaboration face?

Let’s consider the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS was hardly the first international collaboration in space. The handshake in space of 1975 was the détente for a low earth orbit alliance. This led to the 15 nation relationship of today’s ISS. Initially, NASA planned an orbiting space platform named “Freedom” as a structured countertrade among a few Western European partners. But political pendulums impacted budgets, priorities, and national capabilities. Freedom matured into today’s ISS with NASA/USA, Roscosmos/Russia, JAXA/Japan, ESA/Western Europe and CAS/Canada. Agreements ensured a shared exploration platform without an open kimono of intellectual property and procedures. Bringing Russia into the mix likely influenced compliance with the Missile Technology Control Regime which limits exporting weapons of mass destruction. Spacefairing nations were realizing the cost effectiveness and distributed risk of pacing to the next race.

An ageless African proverb says, if you want to go quickly, go alone but if you want to go far, go together. This epitomizes the space race of the 1960s and reflects the technical and political challenge of humans landing on Mars. Landing and sustaining humans on Mars can take one of two paths, another space race or a multinational cooperative endeavor. Events that risk loss of crew or loss of mission are magnified because a return from mars would take several months or a year (moon returns take about three days). Human lives are a big risk.


NASA has developed Orion, the crewed spacecraft to ferry humans on a Martian roundtrip. NASA’s heavy lift rocket, Space Launch System, is designed to launch a crew and cargo to Mars. The first test of this system will also deploy Japanese and Italian satellites in late 2018. OSRO/India’s space agency (OSRO) has had a satellite orbiting Mars since 2014 while currently developing their own human space program. China’s space agency (CNSA) began human space exploration in 1973 and has mostly gone solo with plans of their own space station.


Today, we are seeing more and more nations pursuing a comparative advantage in space; however, no nation has an absolute advantage in space technology for a sustained Mars exploration program. A few nations hope to be the one to take the next giant leap for all mankind, but a single nation simply can’t sustain a presence on Mars. To make that a reality, it will require the patronage, resources, skillsets and shared risks of many nations.

Think of the implications of coming together on Earth in order to achieve a presence on Mars.


There are 105 countries a part of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which serves as a framework for recognizing the “common interest of all mankind.” Now think about this--mutual space programs among nations tend to dilute the terrestrial conflicts of ideologies and interests, discords in diplomacy and tensions over trade. Imagine the 105 countries participating in some manner to explore and sustain a Martian settlement? Many nations already possess essentials from raw materials to manufacturing processes to engineering and scientific intellects. Such collaboration would help identify, diffuse and mitigate political risks we have grown to endure.


Having the Tbird perspective, we recognize the global political risk and comprehend the value of its reduction through a common Mars mission that would produce returns in other trade arenas for both public and private sectors. But managing such a Mars program among many nations could be more diverse than any existing multinational. Some form of international governance would be needed perhaps similar to the UN Economic and Social Council or International Space Exploration Coordination Group. Continuing and expanding collaboration in space is heading in one direction, up.

No matter how or when we get to Mars, sharing the journey and sharing the risk allows all to take larger strides.


About the Author:

Eric Johnson ’92 is a TIAA member, Thunderbird graduate and contractor for NASA. He manages technical lifecycle reviews for the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built.

Photos courtesy of NASA



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