The Mars Mission That Never Was, and What Happens Next
published during a waxing crescent moon.

The plan was sound.

Step One: Build a permanent space station in orbit around the Earth.

Step Two: Send astronauts back to the Moon for a long-term mission.

Step Three: Send astronauts to Mars. There was no ambiguity about the destination, nor even about the timeframe.

There was no ambiguity about the destination, nor even about the timeframe. Ten years for the space station, twenty years for the Moon, thirty years for Mars. And it was more specific, even, than that—when haven’t we been thirty years from sending humans to Mars, after all? No, this time it was thirty years with a hard and meaningful deadline: the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing: July 20th, 2019.

This wasn’t the #journeytomars in 2010, nor even the Constellation program in 2005, but rather, the Space Exploration Initiative of 1989, the first major presidential commitment to human space exploration since Kennedy’s We Choose to Go to the Moon speech. The initiative was launched from the steps of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in an address by then-president George H.W. Bush, and it was real—it was going to happen… until it didn’t. Its thunderbolt appearance and rapid decline is the story of the perpetual bind in which

the agency finds itself: chartered to achieve epoch-defining, long-term goals for humankind, yet limited by political actors with competing agendas and little inclination to trade domestic achievements for cosmic ones. With NASA set yet again for a possible pivot away from Mars, it bears noting what happened before to understand what will happen next.

Mars Mission

Alan Chinchar’s 1991 rendition of the Space Station Freedom in orbit. The painting depicts the completed space station. Earth is used as the image’s backdrop with the Moon and Mars off in the distance. Credit: NASA


“Thirty years ago, NASA was founded and the space race began. And 30 years from now I believe man will stand on another planet. And so I am pleased to return to Texas today to announce a new age of exploration with not only a goal but also a timetable: I believe that before Apollo celebrates the 50th anniversary of its landing on the Moon, the American flag should be planted on Mars.” —George H.W. Bush, May 12, 1990

A presidential commitment is no small thing. Hours before Bush’s address, Mars was still in brackets in the text of the speech. Maybe he would say it; maybe he would not. The president wasn’t prepared to go all-in because he understood that once he spoke aloud the word “Mars,” it would become American policy and would set the ship of state on a new celestial course. His word would do more than to provide a rhetorical boost to a space program made listless under a parade of presidents ambivalent to NASA’s mission. Rather, it would give the agency a framework with which it could now plan new rockets, rovers, spacecraft, and landers. Only when he was satisfied that a crewed Mars mission could be achieved did he include it in the speech, resolving publicly to make the expedition happen. The speech at the Air and Space Museum wasn’t a one-off, either. It was the first of many addresses, laying the philosophical groundwork for what was to come, which he followed up months later with the proposed timeline.

When Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative, or SEI, the program had a fighting chance of success. The three steps above—space station, the moon, and Mars—were solid goals, and the very notion of a president determined to see them through was proven by the White House’s willingness to give NASA a cash infusion the likes of which it hadn’t seen since the onset of Apollo. The agency’s budget would have doubled by the year 2000 from its 1990 budget of $13.3 billion. (Today, the agency’s total budget is $19.1 billion, far below even the then-“paltry” budget of 1990, which, adjusted for inflation, comes to about $25 billion.) Under SEI, NASA’s funding would rise to a full two percent of the federal budget—a breathtaking figure today, but only half of what NASA commanded during the Apollo era.

According to Mars Wars: The Rise and Fall of the Space Exploration Initiative, by Thor Hogan, the administration won over the director of the Office of Management and Budget by making SEI a long-term endeavor, requesting a gradual increase in funds over decades, as opposed to a sudden, economy-jolting spending surge on the outset. SEI would be no mere program within a much larger agency. Rather, it would be the “central organizing principle for the entire civil space program.” Everything NASA would do going forward would be in service of this goal.

Mars Mission

U.S. national space policy calls for expanding human presence and activity beyond Earth orbit into the solar system. To fulfill that policy, the Space Exploration Initiative includes plans to land men and women on Mars. President Bush set a goal for such a landing for the year 2019, but humans may reach Mars much earlier. Credit: NASA

Notable of SEI was the throwing of caution to political winds—a rare action in politics, and seeing as how Bush lost reelection, a powerful lesson indeed to those who might be tempted to follow suit. Bush gave his speeches and NASA and the National Space Council began drawing up plans, and the initiative was not met with universal acclaim. The public was not on board, with one opinion poll registering a mere 27 percent of Americans favoring increased NASA spending. Only the slightest of majorities thought it even mattered whether or not the United States was first to Mars.

Space exploration: the only endeavor in human history whose prerequisite is first solving every problem in the world.

These sorts of numbers had precedent. A poll taken after Apollo 11—arguably the greatest achievement in all of human history—registered a staggeringly low approval of 53 percent. Barely half of Americans felt that the program was worth it, and those numbers only fell as the Apollo program continued. In other words, if politicians wait for some sudden rally of support for a major investment in space exploration before committing, we might never launch a rocket again, let alone begin developing Martian real estate. There has never been a golden age of public support for human spaceflight.

The next obstacle to SEI was Congress. The opposition party controlled the legislative branch, and appropriators were in no mood to give the president a win or NASA—an office of the White House—two percent of the federal budget. Members cited the budget deficit and national debt as problems of higher import, as well as the traditional refrain accompanying any proposal to rededicate ourselves to space exploration: “We need to solve the problems down here before we solve the ones up there.” (This, in essence, makes space exploration the only endeavor in human history whose prerequisite is first solving every problem in the world.) Members of Congress complained also—quite fairly—that the president’s proposal lacked specificity. In the end, specificity would be the program’s undoing.

NASA and the National Space Council sought to draft a robust and detailed proposal to achieve the objectives called for by the president. Communications failures and management shortcomings poisoned the relationship between the agency and the council from the start. NASA interpreted the president’s call to mean: Develop the best and safest program to achieve the president’s goals. The National Space Council, on the other hand, understood the president to want a plethora of options from which to choose, with relative pros and cons (e.g., This is very expensive but very safe; this is inexpensive with greater risk; this emergent technology could save money down the road; a restructure of NASA management would increase efficiency; and so on).

The eventual proposal that emerged from the fraught relationship offered the White House no options and a NASA-designed Mars program with a half-trillion-dollar price tag. It was a preposterous figure to drop, especially considering the debate of the moment over budget deficits. Despite subsequent efforts by the National Space Council to bring in outside parties with new ideas, and attempts by the White House to court Congress and the public with new studies and lower price tags, SEI never recovered. Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, and when his administration issued a new guidance for American space policy, notably missing was any mention of Mars or the Moon. Humankind was confined to low Earth orbit, where it remains today.

Mars Mission

This artist’s concept shows what a lunar outpost might look like, based on the results of studies conducted thus far. Actual lunar surface systems may be different from those shown in the picture. A site for the lunar outpost will be selected by evaluating factors such as closeness to surface features of scientific interest, Earth’s visibility, soil chemistry, and roughness of the terrain. The outpost could expand into a network of lunar bases and ultimately a lunar settlement. Credit: NASA


Ironically, the only outright survivor of SEI, the space station Freedom—what would become the International Space Station—was sold essentially as a package deal with a moon base because even the White House conceded that the station had “no goal to go beyond itself.” By selling the station as a stepping stone to the moon, Congress would be more likely to fund it. And indeed, the funding materialized, though the stepping stone did not. The ISS became a Tholian web surrounding the Earth—too expensive to abandon and leaving no money for a lunar expedition. Space shuttle advocates loved it. After all, we needed the shuttle to keep the space station crewed, and we needed the space station to give the shuttle somewhere to go. It was the ultimate self-licking ice cream cone. The moon simply didn’t have a place in this paradigm.

Had the Bush Moon-Mars initiative continued past the assembly of the space station, however, new technologies would have been necessary to reach beyond low Earth orbit. Variants of many of these technologies would, in fact, eventually launch on an ad-hoc basis and with different science objectives, but their decades-late timetables put them far outside of the SEI envelope. SEI called for moon and Mars observers to be developed and placed in orbit and on the surface of those worlds. (The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would later launch.) The proposal also called for up to five Mars rovers and a sample return mission. Today there are four rovers on Mars, and a fifth—Mars 2020—is soon to launch, possessing a sample caching capability. (How those samples will be returned to Earth remains an open question.) Robotically, at least, SEI has a tenuous connection to reality.

Here is how a moon base would have been built. Astronauts, spacecraft, supplies, and fuel would be launched (presumably on a space shuttle variant) to the space station, where they would dock. Everything and everyone would then be loaded into a lunar transporter and begin the journey to the moon. Once there, an “excursion vehicle” would dock with the transporter, and everything would be transferred to the new spacecraft. The excursion vehicle would separate and descend to the lunar surface. This would be done over many trips, and in terms of moon base assembly, look a lot like the assembly of the International Space Station. Four astronauts on the ground would be responsible for assembling habitats, power systems, life support, and air locks, and the base and its crew would grow over time, with inflatable habitats able to store 12 astronauts each. The Mars base would work similarly, with the space station as a rally point for crew and cargo. All of this, of course, would have required the development of heavy lift launch capabilities and crew vessels. Today, the Space Launch System and Orion would fill those needs. Development for both systems, however, has been tortured, their destinies uncertain.

Have Congress and the executive learned from the exploration desert of the post-Apollo era through today? The failure of SEI, the cancellation of Constellation, and the looming abandonment of the Journey to Mars would suggest not. Is it simply that the money was never there in the first place to mount such an ambitious endeavor as a Mars program? The $1.5 trillion price of a single military aircraft—the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—should raise eyebrows about national priorities. One pointless, vulnerable, and obscenely expensive jet could have funded three station-Moon-Mars colony programs, from blueprints (drawn each time from scratch!) through permanent settlement.

To be sure, these celestial vacillations—moon-Mars-moon-Mars-asteroid-Mars-moon—are not NASA’s doing; they are the government’s. NASA is an office of the executive—the Department of the Exterior—and funded by Congress. The agency is too often more passenger than pilot in its exploration of the stars. Had presidential administrations simply chosen a plan and stuck with it, correcting missteps along the way and guarding its funding throughout, today astronauts might be standing on Phobos, looking down and gearing up for the next giant leap. Pivot enough times, and you just go in circles.