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In 1989 the then president of the United States of America, George Bush, called for a Space Exploration Initiative. The response to this was the infamous 90-day report, which called for a fleet of massive ships to be built in orbit so that everything could be taken to mars prior to the start of a manned mission. It came in with a price tag of $450,000,000,000 which congress took one look at and said no.
Mars direct began life as a reaction to this overly ambitious and unrealistic plan, and to others like it. Robert Zubrin (and his friend David Baker) decided that a different approach to manned mars exploration was needed, so they came up with one.
They started off by examining the 90 day report, looking for all of the assumptions that it contained, and looked to see if any of them were required. They then went on to produce a plan which questioned those assumptions at every step.
They decided to split the plan into sections, and try and identify what the actual needs were for each section, and from that, what was the best way to put them together again to make a full manned mission.
Then they worked out what effect aborting the mission would have on each section, and moved anything not needed at that stage from that part of the plan.
The first assumption that they removed was the idea that lunar exploration and mars exploration were connected. Zubrin was not interested in the moon, he wanted to go to mars. He therefore decided to go directly to mars, hence the name mars direct.
The finished plan calls for two modules, a Habitation module and an Earth Return Vehicle.
The final result of all this work is a plan that can take us to the point of having a mars colony for a cost of only 7% of the combined NASA and military space budgets using only technology already existing in 1990.
Quite an improvement on the previous NASA plans, and a massive improvement over the 90 day plan. Even the expanded NASA version of mars direct comes in at only $50,000,000,000 (costed by the same team) which is only a ninth as much, and that is over 10 years.
He gives the entire plan a good write-up in his book "The case for Mars".