Congress seeks more details on NASA’s Mars plans as presidential transition looms


WASHINGTON — With a change in administrations less than a year away, members of Congress called on NASA to refine its human exploration plans in order to better survive the transition, while also defending two key elements of those plans.

At a Feb. 3 hearing of the House Science space subcommittee, members and witnesses argued that NASA needs to provide more details about its long-term goal of sending humans to Mars to keep that program on track when the next president takes office.

“There appears to be a consensus that the horizon goal of America’s human exploration program is to land on the surface of Mars. But how will we get there?” asked the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas). “How do we ensure that the next administration does not wipe the slate clean, erasing all the hard work of the last five years?”

Democratic members of the committee shared those concerns. “What we need now is a clearly articulated plan on how we will get to Mars,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the full House Science Committee. She noted that presidential transitions “have, in the past, led to significant redirections in NASA’s human exploration program. If that were to happen again, that would be a tragedy.”

The hearing’s witnesses agreed that NASA has not provided sufficient details about its human spaceflight plans. “What we do not have is a plan, strategy or architecture with sufficient detail that takes us from today to humans on the surface of Mars or the moon with a long-term goal of extended presence,” said retired aerospace executive Tom Young.

Paul Spudis, a senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute and an advocate of lunar missions, also argued NASA’s human spaceflight plans were lacking detail. “We pretend that we’re on a journey to Mars but, in fact, possess neither the technology nor the economic resources necessary to undertake a human Mars mission now or within the foreseeable future,” he said.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House space subcommittee, urged NASA to refine its human Mars exploration plans to avoid a change in direction by the next administration. Credit: House Science Committee video

NASA, which did not participate in the hearing, has argued in the past that it is gradually putting together a strategy for human missions to Mars, one that includes a series of human missions in cislunar space in the 2020s prior to Mars expeditions in the 2030s. Part of that strategy includes the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), where a robotic spacecraft will grab a boulder from the surface of a near Earth asteroid and return it to cislunar space for astronauts to visit in an Orion spacecraft.

However, ARM was widely criticized by witnesses and members alike at the hearing. “The administration continues to force this mission on NASA without any connection to a larger exploration roadmap and absent support from the scientific community or NASA’s own advisory committees,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the full committee.

“ARM offers no unique benefits beyond providing a place for Orion to visit,” Spudis said. “In terms of scientific and operational importance, it is barren of real accomplishment and irrelevant to future deep space missions.”

That congressional desire to alter NASA’s exploration plans does not extend, however, to Orion and the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. Committee members said they would oppose any effort, by this administration or the next, to cancel either program.

“There is bipartisan support within Congress for SLS and the Orion crew vehicle,” Smith said. “Any effort to cancel these programs will be met with stiff opposition.”

“The SLS and Orion systems are critical to the success of our deep space human exploration program,” Babin said. “We have come too far now to see a costly and destructive cancellation.”

At the hearing, witnesses cautioned that any humans-to-Mars program may require significantly more money than what NASA is currently spending on human spaceflight. John Sommerer, who chaired the technical panel supporting the National Academies’ 2014 report on human space exploration, noted the architectures they examined either carried high technical risks or were too expensive.

“In the current fiscal environment, there are no good pathways to Mars,” he concluded. “It might be better to stop talking about Mars if there is no appetite in Congress and the administration for higher human spaceflight budgets, and no willingness to cut programs that do not contribute to progress.”