Foust Forward | What do we want? Mars! When do we want it? Uhhh…

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the May 14, 2018 issue.

Few in Congress are bigger proponents of sending humans to Mars than Ed Perlmutter, and he has the bumper sticker to prove it.

Perlmutter, a Democratic congressman from Colorado, rarely misses an opportunity at House Science Committee hearings to advocate for human Mars exploration, with a specific date for the first mission: 2033. This usually includes showing off a bumper sticker with an image of Mars and the phrase “2033: We Can Do This.”

All the attendees of the recent Humans to Mars Summit in Washington got their own copy of that bumper sticker in their registration packets, and when Perlmutter took the stage for an opening keynote, he asked everyone to move to the center of the auditorium and hold up their stickers for a group photo.

“It’s just something that I think it going to capture the imaginations of young people — it already has — and it will give us a goal and a point to work towards. And if you have that, things start moving,” he said after that photo op.

Setting a specific date for sending humans to Mars is needed, he argued, to provide focus for the effort to make it possible. “Until then, it’s just kind of amorphous,” he said.

While the audience at the conference might support a 2033 goal for a human Mars mission, there’s a lack of unanimity elsewhere, particularly in the administration and Congress, about when humans should go to Mars. The new national space policy sets no date for the first crewed mission to Mars, offering it as only an indefinite goal. Earlier policies were little better: President Obama talked about human missions to orbit Mars in the mid-2030s with landings that “will follow,” but neither he nor NASA got more specific.

“My personal feeling is that there’s going to be a time when we have to put some kind of target date down. I don’t think that time is right now,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, during a panel discussion after Perlmutter’s speech. He suggested it might be several years before NASA, working with international and commercial partners, can set a date. “It will be needed, but I don’t think we’re there.”

A specific date “drives a sense of urgency and focus,” said Peter McGrath, director of business development for Boeing’s space exploration division, arguing that the deadline President Kennedy set for landing humans on the moon was essential to the ultimate success of Apollo. “If we make it so openended,” he said of going to Mars, “we may never get beyond the moon.”

He stopped short, though, of endorsing either Perlmutter’s 2033 date or some other specific deadline. “They’re targets, not firm commitments. And they will move,” he said, because of political and technical issues.

During the three-day conference, there was no shortage of potential dates for human Mars missions discussed, both later and even earlier than 2033. A workshop report on potential Mars mission architectures, discussed during one conference panel, examined three scenarios, only one of which would meet that 2033 deadline, and then only for putting humans around Mars. The others pushed off humans on Mars to the 2040s.

On the other hand, SpaceX continues to talk about sending humans to Mars in the 2020s using its BFR launch system. During another conference panel, SpaceX’s Josh Brost said a first human mission in 2024, as discussed by Elon Musk last September, remained the company’s target. However, he advised those dates remain “aspirational.”

So, in 15 years, Perlmutter’s bumper sticker might survive as nothing more than faded remnants on aging cars, another reminder of the unrealized dreams of Mars exploration. Perhaps, though, it might be on the back of a rover on the Martian surface. The question, though, is whether that rover will belong to NASA or to SpaceX.


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.