NASA officials have been talking about sending astronauts to Mars for decades, but recently NASA upped the ante and came out with an actual plan to do so. And then, as soon as the plan was published, Congress was ready and willing to pick it apart.
Maybe that's why NASA kept the plan to get to Mars so light on the details.
NASA fans have been waiting a long while for this super-awesome get-our-astronauts-to-Mars plan since they expected it would offer crucial details like a firm timeline and the estimated cost of the endeavor. Unfortunately, the Journey to Mars plan issued last Thursday didn't actually get into how NASA would pull off the journey. In fact, the 36-page report, titled "NASA's Journey to Mars, Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration," was disappointingly vague.
Instead of going over how NASA intends to get astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, the plan outlines three broad phases of planned exploration. First comes the low-Earth orbit stage, where astronauts work on the orbital laboratory of the International Space Station to make sure various technologies and communications needed to complete a trip to Mars actually work.
Anyway, next up is deep space. To master deep space, NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. Assuming we don't end up needing to call on the asteroid-wrangling skills of Bruce Willis during this endeavor, the deep space thing will help NASA actually test out new systems and capabilities, including things like Solar Electric Propulsion, a system that uses magnetism and electricity to push a ship through space.
The Space Launch System comes into play during this part: NASA plans on having the SLS (a hangover from President George W. Bush's Constellation program that is known with varying degrees of anger and fondness as that "stupid huge rocket" by NASA watchers) up and running by 2018 (though that first test in 2018 will be minus any crew). And then the plan is to get a crew out to that lassoed asteroid by 2025 to study it.
And then comes phase three of the NASA plan, the part where, you know, NASA actually sends astronauts to orbit Mars. Just as with the moon all those years ago, the first trips will be about orbiting the planet and maybe landing on one of its moons, according to the NASA report. Then, eventually, astronauts will take the plunge and actually land on the planet.
After the plan came out last week, some space travel types were a little miffed about the lack of concrete plans, as noted by The Planetary Society, but, surprisingly, it was members of Congress who actually got noisy about NASA's vagueness.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas was particularly angry over the lack of an actually fleshed-out Mars journey plan. Smith, the House science committee chairman, sounded off in a meeting on Friday. “This proposal contains no budget, it contains no schedule, no deadlines,” Smith said. Meanwhile, Smith lamented budget cuts that have sliced into funding for the SLS and other deep space initiatives and blamed it all on President Barack Obama's administration for “continuing to try to strangle these programs.”
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Rep. Brian Babin, the subcommittee chairman and another Texas Republican, also got in on the action, making it clear that he didn't think any of this was NASA's fault and that the NASA administrators are just “trying to make the best of a poor situation,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
The thing is, when it comes down to it, NASA is a federal agency caught in the crossfire between Congress and the Obama administration. Congress will propose cutting the earth science studies that Obama is into, and then Obama will turn around and propose cuts to the SLS funding because it's a pet project cooked up by the Senate.
This back and forth has been going on since NASA was created, but it's been particularly ridiculous of late, since everybody is so busy arguing over what to do that nothing gets done. What's troubling is that, while the camps try to get at each other by taking swipes at NASA's budget, it gets really hard for the space agency to make a plan or even come up with a real workable price tag for the big hop to Mars.
NASA has been a political bargaining chip, but with everybody taking their political carving knives to NASA's budget, we'll never get anywhere, let alone to Mars.