WASHINGTON — In the latest salvo in an ongoing debate about the best road to Mars, two senior Obama administration officials stressed a path directed by technology development and again dismissed the idea of setting astronauts on a fast-track mission to the red planet, as some in Congress want NASA to do.

Congress thinks “we can just go to Mars tomorrow by pouring some more money in … but they don’t get that we won’t get there without investments in advanced technology,” John Holdren, science adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, told members of the NASA Advisory Council April 16. 

The Obama administration has made technology development a hallmark of its NASA policies, but according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who addressed the council alongside Holdren, “technology development is not a high priority in the Congress right now, unfortunately.” 

Congress’ favored human spaceflight projects are the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and its companion Orion deep-space crew capsule, for which lawmakers have reliably appropriated about $3 billion annually since 2010. Those programs build upon investments — $10 billion by some estimates — in former U.S. President George W. Bush’s Moon-bound Constellation program, which Obama canceled in 2010. 

In recent months, a vocal contingent of House Republicans led by Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Science Committee, has been urging NASA to focus its near-term human spaceflight plans on a crewed Mars flyby early next decade using SLS and Orion.

The mission is the brainchild of the Inspiration Mars Foundation, a nonprofit put together by billionaire space tourist Dennis Tito. The mission was conceived in early 2013 as a privately funded venture using commercial space hardware, but was subsequently reformulated as a public-private partnership leveraging SLS and Orion.

The administration has proposed — but not committed to — using SLS and Orion as part of an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that would haul a small asteroid into lunar space using a new robotic retrieval spacecraft that would launch around 2019. Astronauts aboard an SLS-launched Orion capsule would subsequently approach the asteroid for an up-close inspection. 

Technology development is a key feature of ARM, to the point that most of the $133 million NASA proposes to spend on the mission in 2015 involves development of hardware with potential applications in commercial communications satellites. For example, ARM’s robotic retrieval spacecraft would be powered by solar-electric propulsion that utilizes both thrusters and solar cells more powerful than any in commercial use today.

If the satellite industry ultimately embraces the technology, NASA officials reason, the agency would be relieved from having to shoulder the cost of maintaining a robust industrial base for the advanced propulsion systems necessary for a crewed mission to Mars. 

“We’re hoping the communications satellite [industry] picks those up and they’re available for us to be used in the future so we don’t have to continue to stay at the state of the art,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, told the NASA Advisory Council.

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot has estimated that the ARM asteroid-capture spacecraft will cost about $1.25 billion, not including launch. Gerstenmaier said the agency will “codify the real budget for this activity” with its 2016 budget request, nominally due for public release in February.

By the time ARM has an asteroid in position for astronauts to inspect in lunar space, SLS and Orion will have flown together twice, according to NASA’s current plans. The maiden SLS-Orion flight in 2017 would be an uncrewed shakedown flight to the proposed asteroid-storage orbit around the Moon. A 2021 flight would repeat the mission with a crew. 

The 2021 mission, known internally as Exploration Mission (EM)-2, is the earliest possible opportunity for an asteroid rendezvous, but NASA is in no hurry to make sure it hauls an asteroid back to the lunar orbit by that time. NASA is notionally targeting 2025 for the rendezvous. “We shouldn’t get tied up that EM-2 is this exact [asteroid] mission,” Gerstenmaier told the NASA Advisory Council’s human spaceflight committee April 14. “I don’t see these as coupled.”

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...