Antarctica in the News

Kids Talk Radio Science has covered news about Antarctica for the past ten years.  We welcome your stories about Antarctica.   We are studying Antarctica as if it were Mars.

Antarctic ice shelf sheds Delaware-sized iceberg

The ice chunk’s release raises questions about how stable its parent ice shelf is
JUL 12, 2017 — 2:38 PM EST
Larsen C

Images from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellites  were used to confirm the mega-calving of Larsen C, an ice shelf.  It formed an iceberg weighing 1 trillion metric tons.  Red box in Earth image above highlights where in Antarctica the break-off occurred.

With one last rip, a roughly trillion metric ton iceberg splintered off of Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf today. The event had been anticipated for weeks. A fracture on the ice shelf had been growing, day by day. It finally calved off a chunk of ice roughly the size of Delaware. This is one of the largest ice-shedding events ever reported.

July 12 satellite images confirmed that a nearly 5,800-square-kilometer (2,240 square mile) iceberg had separated and was floating in the Weddell Sea. Its size is equal to about a tenth of the ice shelf’s starting area.

Larsen C’s outer ice shelf
In the days before it broke off, Larsen C’s outer ice shelf gained momentum. Satellite images show the ice’s movement tripled in speed to 10 meters (nearly 33 feet) per day at the end of June. That’s the fastest it had ever been recorded. “The remaining ice is strained near to breaking point,” glaciologist Adrian Luckman tweeted just days before the break-up.
A. Luckman/Project Midas/Swansea Univ

Scientists had been monitoring Larsen C since 2014. Back then they had noticed that a surface crack had grown roughly 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) in less than nine months. The cracking slowed in 2015. Then it grew another 40 kilometers in 2016, and 10 more in the first half of January 2017. The crack had now spanned a distance of 175 kilometers (108 miles). Its tip was just 20 kilometers from the Weddell Sea.

In late May, approaching winter there, the crack lengthened 17 kilometers more. At times, its leading edge extended parallel to the ice shelf, leaving it still 13 kilometers from the sea’s edge. The crack forming the edge of this soon-to-be iceberg was so big that it essentially left the enormous hunk of ice dangling. That meant it could move separately from the whole shelf. And this put new pressure on the entire ice shelf, and especially the crack.

“The remaining ice is strained near to breaking point,” Adrian Luckman tweeted June 30. “It won’t be long now,” added this scientist at Swansea University in Wales. He’s a glaciologist who has been keeping an eye (via satellite) on the crack.

By July 6, the crack had come to within 5 kilometers of the edge of the ice. Earlier today it reached the water, allowing the huge hunk of ice to become a free-floating iceberg.

The ice loss dramatically alters the landscape of Larsen C, Luckman notes. “Maps will need to be redrawn.”

More drama to come?

But today’s ice release could be the least of the troubles ahead, says Adam Booth. He’s a geophysicist at the University of Leeds in England. “The calving event is significant because it is likely a precursor to something much bigger,” he says. He could imagine, “potentially, the collapse of the whole Larsen C ice shelf.”

That’s what happened, 15 years ago, to the neighboring Larsen B ice shelf shortly after it calved off a Rhode Island-size iceberg.

“Glaciologists are keen to see how Larsen C will react,” says Luckman. Together with Booth, he has been monitoring Larsen C as part of Project MIDAS. The project uses research on the ground and from satellites along with computer analyses to track impacts of a warming climate on this ice shelf.

Since ice shelves float on water, the calving of icebergs from them won’t directly raise sea level much (and only then when the whole berg has melted). But a complete collapse of Larsen C would be a different matter. The reason: Ice shelves get in the way, and thereby slow the flow of ice off of Antarctica’s land. The calving or collapse of ice shelves allows glaciers and ice streams further inland to now flow unimpeded into the ocean. And that can contribute to sea-level rise.

Calving of icebergs is common. Over several decades, ice shelves will usually return to their original size. But in the last two decades, ice shelves have instead continued to lose ice — until they finally collapse. This likely reflects Earth’s rising fever, due to climate change, the researchers say. In 2014, scientists concluded that Larsen B’s collapse was due to such warming.

Some computer modeling studies in 2015 suggested that Larsen C could suffer the same fate, Luckman says. That projection had indicated it could happen within a few years to decades. Still, the calving event that feeds a potential collapse may itself be due to factors other than climate change. “Not all ice-related stories have a clear global warming origin,” Luckman points out. Larsen C’s calving, he says, “may simply be a natural event that would have happened regardless.”

To be sure, not all scientists are certain Larsen C will fall apart completely. Researchers from Europe predict major changes to the shelf would happen only if it loses more than half of its ice. At that point, a Nature Climate Change paper concluded last year, a large share of ice could ooze out of glaciers and into the ocean.

Still, understanding what has just allowed the new mega-calving of Larsen C will “give us insight regarding other fractures or rifts on the shelf,” says Dan McGrath. He’s a geoscientist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He considers a total collapse of Larsen C “very unlikely.” But this ice shelf does have other dormant rifts, or cracks. And based on where they sit, he says, if these started growing, any later calving event could “be worrisome for the shelf’s stability.”

Differences in predictions of Larsen C’s future raise an important point, adds Richard Alley. He’s a geologist at Pennsylvania State University in State College. Researchers don’t understand ice shelf calving and collapsing well enough to firmly predict how any one ice shelf will behave after a big part of it breaks away.

“The Larsen C ice shelf is, of course, just one small part of Antarctica,” Booth says. “What is worrying is that we’re seeing trends in several ice shelves that tend towards decreasing stability. Should they continue along these trends, we could be seeing the start of increased mass loss from the Antarctic continent.”

And that could spell big increases in sea-level rise — conditions that would challenge coastal communities across the planet.

Larsen C crack
Two radar images taken April 7 and April 14 with ESA’s Sentinel-1 Earth-observing satellites reveal the growing crack (red) in Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. The image shows a pattern that emerged when the radar signals from the two images are superimposed. This technique let researchers to track far tinier changes in the crack compared with standard black and white radar images.
A. Hogg/CPOM/Priestly Centre (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO) (contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data, 2017)

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

Antarctica     A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the world.

calving    (in Earth sciences) The natural splitting off of  some part of the leading edge of a glacier or ice sheet. This is a source of the icebergs seen floating in polar waters.

climate     The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.

climate change     Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

computer model    A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world feature, phenomenon or event.

continent     (in geology) The huge land masses that sit upon tectonic plates. In modern times, there are six established geologic continents: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. In 2017, scientists also made the case for yet another: Zealandia.

dormant     Inactive to the point where normal body functions are suspended or slowed down.

factor     Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.

fracture     (noun) A break. (verb) To break something and induce cracks or a splitting apart of something.

glacier     A slow-moving river of ice hundreds or thousands of meters deep. Glaciers are found in mountain valleys and also form parts of ice sheets.

glaciology     A field of science that deals with the glaciers and their impacts on Earth and the environment. People who work in this field are known as glaciologists.

global warming     The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.

insight     The ability to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a situation just by thinking about it, instead of working out a solution through experimentation.

parallel     An adjective that describes two things that are side by side and have the same distance between their parts. In the word “all,” the final two letters are parallel lines.

precursor     A substance from which some later thing is made. It may be a compound that will change into something else as a result of some chemical or biological reaction.

pressure     Force applied uniformly over a surface, measured as force per unit of area.

projection     Something feature that extends out (or projects) from the body of a structure.

satellite     A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.

sea     An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.

sea level     The overall level of the ocean over the entire globe when all tides and other short-term changes are averaged out.

trillion     A number representing a million million — or 1,000,000,000,000 — of something.

tweet     Message consisting of 140 or fewer characters that is available to people with an online Twitter account.

Wales     One of the three components of Great Britain (the other two being England and Scotland. It’s also part of the United Kingdom (whose other members include England, Scotland and Northern Ireland).

Readability Score:



JOURNAL: D. Jansen et al. Newly developing rift in Larsen C ice shelf presents significant risk to stabilityThe Cryosphere. Vol. 9, June 15, 2015, p. 1223. doi: 10.5194/tc-9-1223-2015.

JOURNAL: J.J. Fürst et al. The safety band of Antarctic ice shelves. Nature Climate Change. Vol. 6, May 2016, p. 479. doi:10.1038/nclimate2912.

Studying Science on Mars

High school students are prototyping Mars rovers to simulate the six science discovery made by the Curiosity Mars Rover.  Students are trained to work on simulated “Tiger Teams” to support NASA.

Curiosity Rover Results:

This image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover's drill.

First Curiosity Drilling Sample in the Scoop
#1 A Suitable Home for Life: The Curiosity rover finds that ancient Mars had the right chemistry to support living microbes. Curiosity finds sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon– key ingredients necessary for life–in the powder sample drilled from the “Sheepbed” mudstone in Yellowknife Bay. The sample also reveals clay minerals and not too much salt, which suggests fresh, possibly drinkable water once flowed there.Read More:


Grotzinger, et al., Habitability, Taphonomy, and the Search for Organic Carbon on Mars, Science, 343(6160):386-387, doi:10.1126/science.1249944, 2014.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity drilled into this rock target, "Cumberland," during the 279th Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars (May 19, 2013) and collected a powdered sample of material from the rock's interior.

‘Cumberland’ Target Drilled by Curiosity
#2 Organic Carbon Found in Mars Rocks: Organic molecules are the building blocks of life, and they were discovered on Mars after a long search by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument in a powdered rock sample from the “Sheepbed” mudstone in “Yellowknife Bay.” The finding doesn’t necessarily mean there is past or present life on Mars, but it shows that raw ingredients existed for life to get started there at one time. It also means that ancient organic materials can be preserved for us to recognize and study today.Read More:


Freissinet, C., et al., Organic Molecules in the Sheepbed Mudstone, Gale Crater, Mars, JGR, 120(3):495-514, doi: 10.1002/2014JE004737, 2015.

description" content="This illustration portrays possible ways methane might be added to Mars' atmosphere (sources) and removed from the atmosphere (sinks). NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has detected fluctuations in methane concentration in the atmosphere, implying both types of activity occur on modern Mars.

Possible Methane Sources and Sinks
#3 Present and Active Methane in Mars’ Atmosphere: The Tunable Laser Spectrometer within the SAM instrument detected a background level of atmospheric methane and observed a ten-fold increase in methane over a two-month period. The discovery of methane is exciting because methane can be produced by living organisms or by chemical reactions between rock and water, for example. Which process is producing methane on Mars? What caused the brief and sudden increase?Read More:


Webster, et al., Mars Methane Detection and Variability at Gale Crater, Science, 347(6220):415-417, doi:10.1126/science.1261713, 2015.

This image shows a backward-looking view of an astronaut in a white spacesuit hiking over reddish sand and rocks on Mars. A gray plume of smoke rises from a fumarole behind the astronaut.

Prepare for human exploration
#4 Radiation Could Pose Health Risks for Humans: During her trip to Mars, Curiosity experienced radiation levels exceeding NASA’s career limit for astronauts. The Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument on Curiosity found that two forms of radiation pose potential health risks to astronauts in deep space. One is galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), particles caused by supernova explosions and other high-energy events outside the solar system. The other is solar energetic particles (SEPs) associated with solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun. NASA will use Curiosity’s data to design missions to be safe for human explorersRead More:


Zeitlin, C., et al., Measurements of Energetic Particle Radiation in Transit to Mars on the Mars Science Laboratory, Science, 340(6136):1080-1084, doi:10.1126/science.1235989, 2013.Hassler, D.M., et al., Mars’ Surface Radiation Environment Measured with the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover, Science, 343(6169), 1244797, doi:10.1126/science.1244797, 2014.

This self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars (Feb. 3, 2013).

Curiosity Self-Portrait at ‘John Klein’
#5 A Thicker Atmosphere and More Water in Mars’ Past: The SAM instrument suite has found Mars’ present atmosphere to be enriched in the heavier forms (isotopes) of hydrogen, carbon, and argon. These measurements indicate that Mars has lost much of its original atmosphere and inventory of water. This loss occurred to space through the top of the atmosphere, a process currently being observed by the MAVEN orbiter.Read More:


Mahaffy. P.R., Abundance and isotopic composition of gases in the martian atmosphere from the Curiosity rover, Science, 341(6143):263-266, doi:10.1126/science.1237966, 2013.Webster, et al., Mars Methane Detection and Variability at Gale Crater, Science, 347(6220):415-417, doi:10.1126/science.1261713, 2015.

NASA's Curiosity rover found evidence for an ancient, flowing stream on Mars at a few sites, including the rock outcrop pictured here, which the science team has named "Hottah" after Hottah Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories.

Remnants of Ancient Streambed on Mars
#6 Curiosity Finds Evidence of An Ancient Streambed: The rocks found by Curiosity are smooth and rounded and likely rolled downstream for at least a few miles. They look like a broken sidewalk, but they are actually exposed bedrock made of smaller fragments cemented together, or what geologists call a sedimentary conglomerate. They tell a story of a steady stream of flowing water about knee deep.

Astronaut Requirements

Still thinking about that #awesome #spacewalk
June 21, 2017

Astronaut Requirements

Illustration of astronaut and four spacecraft -- SpaceX Crew Dragon, Boeing CST-100 Starliner, Orion, and Space Station
During their careers, the next generation of astronauts may fly on any of four different U.S. spacecraft: the International Space Station, two NASA Commercial Crew Program spacecraft currently in development by U.S. companies, and NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration vehicle.
Checklist showing astronaut requirements
What does it take to be an astronaut?
Infographic showing astronaut and statistics for the number of astronaut applicants in 1978, 2012, and 2016
In 2016, NASA received a record-breaking number of applications from people who wanted to become astronauts. One of these applicants may be one of the first explorers to travel to Mars.

Within the next few decades, humans could be leaving their footprints on the Red Planet! That’s the plan, as NASA continues to prepare to expand human exploration in the solar system. Astronauts currently work as scientists on the International Space Station — the test bed for cutting-edge research and technologies that will enable human and robotic exploration of destinations beyond the station’s low-Earth orbit. The Orion spacecraft atop the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will carry humans farther into space then they have gone before — beyond the moon and eventually to Mars.

NASA’s commercial partners are transporting cargo — and soon, crew — to the International Space Station. The need for crew members on these spacecraft and missions will continue. At times, NASA will put out a call for new astronauts.
A Very Brief History of Astronaut Selection

The military selected the first astronauts in 1959. They had to have flight experience in jet aircraft and a background in engineering. And they had to be shorter than 5 feet 11 inches – to fit in the Mercury spacecraft.

But, in addition to flight and engineering expertise, space exploration requires scientific knowledge and the ability to apply it. So, in 1964, NASA began searching for scientists to be astronauts. Back then, one qualification for scientist-astronauts was a doctorate in medicine, engineering, or a natural science such as physics, chemistry or biology.
So, What Does It Take to Be an Astronaut?

Astronaut requirements have changed with NASA’s goals and missions. A pilot’s license and engineering experience is still one route a person could take to becoming an astronaut, but it’s no longer the only one. Today, to be considered for an astronaut position, U.S. citizens must meet the following qualifications:

  1. A bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics.
  2. At least three years of related professional experience obtained after degree completion OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft.
  3. The ability to pass the NASA long-duration astronaut physical. Distant and near visual acuity must be correctable to 20/20 for each eye. The use of glasses is acceptable.

Astronaut candidates must also have skills in leadership, teamwork and communications.

NASA’s Astronaut Selection Board reviews the applications (a record-breaking 18,300 in 2016) and assesses each candidate’s qualifications. The board then invites about 120 of the most highly qualified candidates to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for interviews. Of those interviewed, about half are invited back for a second round. Once the final astronauts are selected, they must complete a two-year training period.

With NASA’s plans for the future of exploration, new astronauts will fly farther into space than ever before on lunar missions and may be the first to fly on to Mars.

Last Updated: June 21, 2017
Editor: Flint Wild

VP Pence Comments on Space Program

Press Release
Lynne Zielinski
National Space Society Supports VP Pence’s Call for Constant Low-Earth Orbit Human Presence Leading to the Settlement of Space

(Washington DC, July 10, 2017) The National Space Society (NSS) endorses Vice President Pence’s call to maintain a “constant presence” in low-Earth orbit (LEO) leading to the settlement of the space frontier, made during a visit July 6, 2017 to Kennedy Space Center. Fresh off the June 30th signing of a an executive order that makes VP Pence the leader of a revitalized National Space Council, Pence delivered an optimistic view of NASA’s future. NSS applauds the creation of a revived National Space Council, and looks forward to Pence leading the Council toward a bold future in space that is not just exciting but that delivers the benefits of space resources to all Americans.

VP Pence spoke about space settlement, saying, “We will maintain a constant presence in low-Earth orbit, and we will develop policies that will carry human space exploration across our solar system and ultimately into the vast expanse of space.” Pence continued, “As the President has said, space is in his words the ‘next great American frontier.’ And like the pioneers that came before us, we will settle that frontier with American leadership, American courage, and American ingenuity.”

VP Pence speaking at Kennedy Space Center. Background L to R: SpaceX Dragon, Orion EFT-1, and Boeing CST-100 training module. Image credit: NASA

“NSS strongly supports a gapless transition from the current International Space Station to future commercial LEO space stations,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “We are encouraged to see the Vice President endorse a ‘constant’ human presence in low-Earth orbit. NSS works diligently to support the development and settlement of space, and this may be the first time that this goal has been endorsed in a public speech by a Vice President.”

NSS has been on the forefront of promoting space settlement for many years and has developed a Roadmap to Space Settlement that can be found at: NSS calls on everyone to help NSS push for space development and settlement by signing up to visit their Congressional representatives in the annual local August Home District Blitz at:

Vice President Pence also spoke on the importance of public-private partnerships in the development of space, saying: “I’m particularly excited to see the increased collaboration with our burgeoning commercial space industry so much in evidence here at the Kennedy Space Center. I’m really sorry that I missed the successful commercial launch that took place last night. But the truth is we’re going to continue to foster stronger partnerships between government agencies and innovative industries across this country because both have so much to offer one another. In conjunction with our commercial partners, we’ll continue to make space travel safer, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before.”

“NSS is pleased that VP Pence has provided a strong endorsement for public-private partnerships in space,” said NSS Senior Vice President Bruce Pittman. “Such partnerships, which include the successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services/Commercial Resupply Services programs to supply cargo to the ISS, have restored the U.S. as the world leader in space launch services.” This year, through the end of June, 2017, there have been 42 launches worldwide, with the USA leading at 13, roughly the same as Russia and China combined.

About the National Space Society (NSS): NSS is an independent nonprofit educational membership organization dedicated to the creation of a spacefaring civilization. NSS is widely acknowledged as the preeminent citizen’s voice on space, with over 50 chapters in the United States and around the world. The Society publishes Ad Astra magazine, an award-winning periodical chronicling the most important developments in space. To learn more, visit the NSS Website ( ;Biographies for the quotes can be found at, and
National Space Society
P.O. Box 98106
Washington, DC  20090-8106
(202) 429-1600

Studying Geology in New Mexico While Thinking About Occupying Mars

El Morro National Monument

Barboza Space Center News:   We have just returned from our summer New Mexico geology field trip. We are always looking to compare and contract Earth and Mars. We invite you to visit our most recent photo essay below.   In addition, we are paving the way for our 2018 Barboza Space Center Tiger Teams from Australia, South Korea and Cabo Verde.  We visited the El Malpas National Monument to continue our studies of volcanoes in New Mexico and Cabo Verde.    Plans are underway to study Mars from New Mexico. You can follow our programs by visiting

Photo Essay: Bob Barboza July, 2017, New Mexico
El Morro National Monument
IUCN category V (protected landscape/seascape)
El morro view.JPG
Location Cibola County, New Mexico, USA
Nearest city El Morro, New Mexico
Coordinates 35°2′18″N 108°21′12″WCoordinates: 35°2′18″N 108°21′12″W
Area 1,278.72 acres (5.1748 km2)
1,039.92 acres (420.84 ha) federal
Created December 8, 1906
Visitors 59,422 (in 2016)[1]
Governing body National Park Service
Website El Morro National Monument
El Morro National Monument
El Morro National Monument is located in New Mexico

El Morro National Monument

Show map of New MexicoShow map of the USShow all

Area 221 acres (89 ha)
Built 1605
NRHP Reference # 66000043[2]
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966
Designated NMSRCP May 21, 1971

El Morro National Monument is located on an ancient east-west trail in western New Mexico. The main feature of this National Monument is a great sandstone promontory with a pool of water at its base.

As a shaded oasis in the western U.S. desert, this site has seen many centuries of travelers. The remains of a mesa top pueblo are atop the promontory where between about 1275 to 1350 AD, up to 1500 people lived in this 875 room pueblo. The Spaniard explorers called it El Morro (The Headland). The Zuni Indians call it “A’ts’ina” (Place of writings on the rock). Anglo-Americans called it Inscription Rock. Travelers left signatures, names, dates, and stories of their treks. While some of the inscriptions are fading, there are still many that can be seen today, some dating to the 17th century. Among the Anglo-American emigrants who left their names there in 1858 were several members of the Rose-Baley Party, including Leonard Rose and John Udell.[3] Some petroglyphs and carvings were made by the Ancestral Puebloan centuries before Europeans started making their mark. In 1906, U.S. federal law prohibited further carving.

The many inscriptions, water pool, pueblo ruins, and top of the promontory are all accessible via park trails.

It is on the Trails of the Ancients Byway, one of the designated New Mexico Scenic Byways.[4]

Experiments with pH Levels: Occupy Mars Learning Adventure Projects

edge® Multiparameter pH Meter


Edge pH.jpg

Hanna Instruments introduces the world’s most innovative pH meter: edge®. edge’s groundbreaking design is the culmination of Hanna’s vision, design capabilities, integrated production and world class R&D. The edge meter is only 0.5” thick yet rich in features to accommodate the needs of a vast amount of customers. For those that prefer very simplistic operation there is a basic mode operation with a simplified menu and options. For those who require advanced features there is the full featured standard operating mode. The edge HI2020 pH kit can be upgraded at any time with additional probes to measure Conductivity or Dissolved Oxygen.
  • edge features a 5.5” LCD display that you can clearly view from over 5 meters. The large display and it’s wide 150° viewing angle provide one of the easiest to read LCDs in the industry.
  • edge features a capacitive touch keypad that gives a distinctive, modern look. Since the keypad is part of the screen, your buttons can never get clogged with sample residue.
  • edge features clear, full text guides displayed on the bottom of the screen. There is no need to decipher scrambled abbreviations or symbols; these helpful messages guide you through every process quickly and easily.


 In Cradle


Edge pH Meter Side View.jpg



EDGE pH  EC DO.jpg



Student fellows at the Barboza Space Center will be conducting experiments in biology, physics, space science and chemistry as they learn how to become junior astronauts, scientists, and engineers getting ready to go to Mars



Turning Up the Heat On Mars Plans

Mars Society founder blasts NASA for ‘worst plan yet’

May 17

Robert Zubrin started the Mars Society nearly two decades ago with the dream of creating a human settlement on the Red Planet.

“The time has come for humanity to journey to Mars!” he announced one night in the summer of 1998, at the group’s founding convention in Boulder, Colo. He then read the society’s Founding Declaration: “We must go, not for us, but for the people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians.”

This reporter was there and filed a story for The Washington Post’s Style section. In the years since, Zubrin has continued to lobby for humans to go to Mars — though no one has managed to get beyond low Earth orbit since the last moon landing in 1972. Until recently, NASA branded virtually everything it was doing as part of a “Journey to Mars,” and Mars remains the horizon goal. The destination was even mandated in a recent congressional authorization act for NASA that was signed by President Trump.

In the meantime, NASA has more modest plans — and these plans don’t please Zubrin, for one.

NASA wants to put a “spaceport” in orbit around the moon. It would be a habitat for astronauts on long-duration missions. You could call it a “space station” if you wanted, though it wouldn’t be nearly as big as the one that’s circling the Earth right now. NASA refers to it as the Deep Space Gateway and describes it as “a crew tended spaceport in lunar orbit.

This is NASA’s next big human spaceflight project, which is supposed to materialize in the mid-2020s. Astronauts would live in the spaceport for as much as a year at a time.

The agency’s stated goal is to test the systems necessary for a human mission to Mars. Any Mars mission would take something on the order of 2½ years round-trip, with seven or eight months in transit each way. On a Mars mission, there’s no turning around halfway. The crew can’t be resupplied. The life support system can’t be swapped out when something goes wrong. There are no pit stops — no oases in interplanetary space where one could pause to slake one’s thirst.

So NASA wants to do what effectively would be a trial run, only at a point in space just three days away by rocket transport (as opposed to the International Space Station, which is more like three hours away).

The NASA lunar spaceport plan has the redeeming feature of being technologically doable in the near term under plausible budgets. But it’s also a far more modest goal than sending humans to Mars.

Zubrin, for one, thinks it’s a terrible idea.

NASA’s Worst Plan Yet” blares the headline in National Review over Zubrin’s byline. He opens with a reference to the now-defunct, “absurd” Asteroid Redirect Mission developed by NASA under President Barack Obama (The Washington Post described it as “NASA’s Mission Improbable.”) Then Zubrin writes: “Amazingly, the space agency has managed to come up with an even dumber idea.”

Zubrin considers the lunar spaceport a waste of money — an idea designed merely as a way to give the new Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule somewhere to go.

We caught up with Zubrin on Tuesday at the Newseum, where he participated in a forum sponsored by the Atlantic titled “On the Launchpad: Return to Deep Space.” (Among others speaking at the forum were Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot and former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan.)

“What we have right now is just drift — it’s not a program,” Zubrin told the forum. He said the lunar spaceport is not needed to go to Mars or even to the surface of the moon. It’s just a way to spend money, he said: “There is not a plan. This is random activity.”

After the presentations, Zubrin gave The Post some additional thoughts on what he perceives as NASA’s failure to come up with a bold and coherent plan. He said that in the long history of NASA studies on the future of human spaceflight — and there is a long list of these lengthy reports — no one ever suggested that an orbital lunar outpost was a necessary part of an exploration program. Part of the problem, as he sees it, is the agency’s recent announcement that the first, uncrewed flight of the Space Launch System rocket will be delayed again, to 2019: “The tragedy of SLS is not that it is being delayed. The tragedy is that it doesn’t matter that it’s being delayed, because there’s nothing for it to launch anyway.”

John Logsdon, professor emeritus of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, weighed in on Zubrin’s comments.

“Robert has always lived in a parallel universe of what ought to be rather than what is,” Logsdon said gently as Zubrin stood beside him.

We asked Logsdon why NASA is building this spaceport in lunar orbit.

“It’s a sneaky way to go back to the moon,” he said.

Zubrin chimed in, “If you want to go back to the moon, go back to the moon!”

The backstory here is that President George W. Bush had a back-to-the-moon program, called Constellation. Obama killed it. Two of the three big elements of that program — a heavy-lift rocket and a new crew capsule — were preserved by powerful members of the Senate. The result is that NASA is spending billions of dollars on hardware to put astronauts in the vicinity of the moon, but there’s no way to get them down to the surface. If an international partner offered up the money for a lander, NASA presumably could put astronauts back on the moon.

Mary Lynne Dittmar, who advocates on behalf of the aerospace industry as head of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, defended the NASA plans on stage, and then again in an interview with The Post. We asked her about Logsdon’s suggestion that NASA’s lunar spaceport is really a way to get humans back on the moon.

“It’s not sneaky,” she said, and pointed us to a NASA request for proposals for ways to deliver cargo to and from the lunar surface. She said the Deep Space Gateway makes sense: “Think of the ISS as the first foothold. This is the second foothold.”

Everyone agrees that Mars is the horizon goal. But Mars is hard. The moon is close, cosmically speaking. We are already seeing a shift toward “commercial” spaceflight, so it could be that the first people on Mars will arrive in spaceships with private company logos and participating in a reality TV show. (Crazier things have happened!) Elon Musk really wants to go to Mars with SpaceX, and his drive and ambition are not to be discounted. Jeffrey P. Bezos (disclosure: he owns The Washington Post) has invested much of his fortune in the rocket company Blue Origin, and he repeatedly has said he wants lots of people doing lots of things in space.

So where will NASA be in, say, 2027?

Logsdon said, “Humans will be back on the moon.”

Zubrin agreed: “I think that’s possible actually — if you’re asking me what is likely, rather than what I’d like.”

Read more:

With Trump, Gingrich and GOP calling the shots, NASA may return to the moon

Our series of stories in 2013 for the project “Destination Unknown”

Trump wants to send astronauts to Mars pronto