Bolden: NASA “Doomed” if Next President Dumps Journey to Mars

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WASHINGTON — As NASA provides more details about its long-term plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, the agency’s administrator warned that any attempt by the next administration to deviate from that plan would be disastrous.

Charles Bolden, in an Oct. 28 speech at the Center for American Progress here, argued that NASA was making progress on a goal set by President Obama in 2010 to send humans to Mars by the mid-2030s, an effort NASA is calling the Journey to Mars.

“President Obama has set us on a visionary course,” Bolden said in his speech. “It is my sincere hope that future leaders from all sides of the political spectrum see it through.”

In a question-and-answer session later, Bolden argued NASA’s Journey to Mars plans needed a “constancy of purpose” that stretched across multiple administrations. “We’ve got to stay focused,” he said. “If we change our minds at any time in the next three or four years, which always is a risk when you go through a government transition, my belief is that we’re doomed.”

“This is not a time that we can start over,” Bolden continued. “I think we’ve been through enough ‘start overs’ to know that people grow weary. People like to see something where you’re persistent.”

NASA’s current plan, Bolden acknowledged, was the result of one of those “start overs” in 2010. He argued the previous effort, the Vision for Space Exploration, was on an “unsustainable trajectory,” quoting the assessment of a 2009 committee led by Norm Augustine. The new plan, by contrast, is “a clear, affordable, financially sustainable and ambitious way forward,” he said.

NASA, though, has faced repeated criticism because a lack of details about how it will get humans to Mars. To address those concerns, NASA released Oct. 8 a report titled “NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration” that offers more information, although not necessarily more technical details, about its human space exploration strategy.

The 34-page report does not, as some critics might have hoped, provide a detailed architecture for human missions to Mars, nor a specific schedule for landing humans there. Instead, it largely compiles what the agency has previously said about its efforts, including its plans to go from an “Earth reliant” approach for human spaceflight to an “Earth independent” one needed for missions to Mars that could last up to three years.

NASA rolled out this infographic in December 2014 illustrating its Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA
NASA rolled out this infographic in December 2014 illustrating its Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA

The report, though, does endorse one specific concept for initial missions beyond Earth orbit. “NASA and its partners will also develop an initial habitation capability for short-duration missions in cislunar space during the early 2020s and evolve this capability for long-duration missions in the later 2020s,” the report states.

That capability, according to the report, would take the form of a “modular, pressurized volume” that would be visited by Orion spacecraft, with additional modules added to the facility over time. “With this long-duration habitable volume and resources, NASA and its partners will have the opportunity to validate Mars habitat concepts and systems,” it states.

The concept of a habitat in space between the Earth and moon has been discussed as one potential destination for human exploration missions in the “proving ground” phase of NASA’s plans beyond Earth orbit, but the report is the strongest endorsement yet of such missions. However, the report doesn’t offer more details about such a habitat, beyond that decisions to define the “initial deep-space habitation capability” need to be made in the next few years.

Even though details about how humans will get to Mars are slow to develop, Bolden argued in his speech that there’s growing support for such missions as a long-term goal. “We’re closer to sending human beings to the Red Planet than ever before in human history,” he said. “Meanwhile, a new consensus is emerging in the scientific and policy communities around NASA’s roadmap and timetable for making this happen.”

John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science, speaks Oct. 27 during the First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars held at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. NASA hosted the workshop to collect proposals for locations on Mars that would be of high scientific research value while also providing natural resources to enable human explorers to land, live and work safely on the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, speaks Oct. 27 during the First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars held at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. NASA hosted the workshop to collect proposals for locations on Mars that would be of high scientific research value while also providing natural resources to enable human explorers to land, live and work safely on the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls