Congress Scolds NASA, Underscoring How Far We Are From Mars

NASA's big Mars plan. Congress looked it over on Wednesday and found it wanting.
NASA's big Mars plan. Congress looked it over on Wednesday and found it wanting.
Image from NASA

It seemed like Congress was finally in the mood to appreciate NASA. After all, the federal space agency has been doing the kind of work that gets a space agency noticed the past couple of years. It pulled off the first launch of the Orion spacecraft in 2014, and then the agency followed up by discovering water on Mars and giving us unprecedented images of Pluto in 2015. And Congress responded with its usual way of expressing emotion, i.e., with funding.

In December Congress voted to give NASA a budget of $19.3 billion for 2016, an increase from 2015 of more than $1 billion, and $750 million more than President Obama had even requested. Of course, this largesse came with some strings attached, as we've previously noted — Congress gave NASA a brisk timetable of about 700 days to get a deep space habitat prototype built, for example. But still, it came across as a nod of Congressional favor toward an agency that has seen precious little love in recent years.

Well, that ended fast. 

It became apparent this week that not everybody in Congress is thrilled with NASA. On Wednesday members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology ripped into NASA's Journey to Mars initiative, claiming that the program needs a better plan and clearer markers to show that NASA is actually moving toward landing astronauts on Mars in the near future. 

The committee members and three expert witnesses spelled out the problems that stand in the way of NASA's exploring cislunar space in the 2020s and getting to Mars by the 2030s. They touched on everything from the money issue — because it's going to take a lot more funding than NASA currently has to pay for the Mars program —  to the fact that the agency is going to have to make some huge technological advances very, very soon to be able to pull this thing off. 

The main issue is that NASA doesn't have a solid, detailed plan for how it's going to get to the Red Planet, according to Tom Young, the former director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We do not have a planned strategy or architecture with sufficient detail," Young told the committee.

Even though NASA is building the Space Launch System rocket and has already pulled off an unmanned test of the Orion crew capsule, there's still a lot that has to get done before the Mars dream will start to look like a feasible reality. NASA still hasn't hammered out the details on the habitat modules or the landing and launch systems. The return launch systems are particularly important since that's how the astronauts will be coming back to Earth once the mission is completed. And yet NASA has remained hazy and vague on these not-incidental details, John Sommerer, chair of the National Academy of Sciences, told the committee.

Sommerer spent more than a year as chairman of the National Research Council technical panel reviewing NASA’s human spaceflight activities. The subsequent report, published in 2014, dug into what NASA's long-term goals should be and how those goals could be achieved. “While sending humans to Mars, and returning them safely to the Earth, may be technically feasible, it is an extraordinarily challenging goal, from physiological, technical and programmatic standpoints,” Sommerer told the committee.

He went on to make it clear that pulling off such a feat will demand a lot of investment, dedicated technological development and real leadership — and that he doesn't think NASA currently has any of the right stuff (so to speak) to make Mars happen. According to Sommerer, NASA's current Journey to Mars plan is impressively insufficient. He and his fellow researchers have already concluded it would take NASA 20 to 40 years and half a trillion dollars to land on Mars. 

Another problem is the fuzziness of NASA's Mars-or-bust timeline. Despite all the ebullient statements from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden about how the space agency's recent accomplishments were all steps toward the big Red Planet goal, it's actually unclear when a lot of the gear that is being built will even start being tested. The first test using both NASA's new giant rocket and Orion together is slated for 2018. Past that, things become murky.

The first crewed test is supposed to come off no later than 2023, with NASA currently aiming for a 2021 launch date. But nothing is set after that, and the only project the SLS rocket is definitely down for is the Asteroid Redirect Mission (a.k.a. the NASA-lassos-an-asteroid thing), where NASA snags an asteroid and then tows it back to lunar space, where astronauts will visit it. Critics have long had issues with the asteroid project, contending that there are no plans to actually do anything scientific with the enormous captured flying rock.  

Committee members went to town on this point, with Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith summing it all up this way: "This is a misguided mission without a mission, without a launch date and without ties to exploration goals. It's just a time-wasting distraction."

Meanwhile, Sommerer and Paul Spudis, a senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the third expert witness, tried to sell the committee on a project that would be a little closer to home. Spudis pointed out that space programs in other countries are all really interested in taking moonshots and doing more lunar-focused work. "The moon is reachable, it’s close, it’s interesting and it’s useful," Spudis told the committee. 

Spudis really made the moon sound like a lovely idea, but there's a slight problem with his pitch, one that we hope the committee members noticed. The moon is nice and all, but we've already been there. In fact, Spudis's logic goes against everything that NASA was founded on.

Back in 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave his famed "Moonshot" speech before a joint session of Congress. In the speech, he unveiled his plan to see an astronaut land on the moon within the decade, but he also made it clear that it would be expensive, that it would be a challenge and that it would require the dedication of the entire nation to pull it off. 

Then, in 1962, Kennedy made his famed speech at Rice University in which he made it apparent that the moon was where we wanted to go, because the moon was the next frontier. As he told the crowd:

"We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win."

The committee meeting pointed out a lot of troubling details — or lack thereof — about NASA's Mars plan, but there's one thing that did become obvious about this mission by the end of the meeting: Going to Mars is possible, but it's not going to be easy, and everyone — Congress, NASA, whoever is the president, the nation — is going to have to really want it. 


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