When Chris Carberry began visiting congressional offices in the late 1990s to discuss space exploration and the merits of sending astronauts to Mars, few people took him seriously.
“I’d walk into a congressional office and see it,” Carberry said. “Whether they rolled their eyes or not, I could see what was going on in their heads. There was definitely a giggle factor.”
One meeting in the Boston office of Joe Moakley, the late U.S. representative from Massachusetts, was interrupted by what Carberry suspects was a staged call from a veteran. According to Carberry, the congressman said into the phone, “I feel your pain” and “I’ll see what I can do,” before turning back to Carberry to ask, “How can I tell the veterans we’re going to Mars when I can’t pay for their medical care?”
At that time, NASA funding was determined by a House Appropriations subcommittee that also oversaw budgets for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Space agency funding jurisdiction has since been shifted to a different subcommittee.
In recent years, members of Congress and their staffs have been far more receptive to Carberry’s message, he said. “Frankly, I’ve never seen as much interest in Congress in Mars exploration as I do now,” Carberry said. “There has been a dramatic change, at least rhetorically. Whether we are actually closer to going to Mars is another matter.”
A history and political science major in college with a similar focus in his early career, Carberry began volunteering for space-related groups in the mid-1990s. In 2008, he became executive director of the Mars Society, a group dedicated to exploration and settlement of the red planet, before co-founding Explore Mars in 2010. Explore Mars is a nonprofit organization focused on policy, education and projects, including a national opinion poll and the 2013 Humans2Mars and Affording Mars conferences.
Carberry, who has been active in Republican national politics and contributed position statements to the Republican National Committee’s 2000 platform, spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.
Why should astronauts travel to Mars?
If we’re going to send people into space and have them explore, Mars has far more to offer than any other location we can reach. The Moon is great because it’s close but it has no atmosphere; it’s desolate. There is water there, but it would take an awful lot of effort to extract the water. Mars is far more scientifically and geologically interesting. Because it has an atmosphere and because it has water we can access now, it’s a far better target for sending humans. Mars should be the overarching goal of human spaceflight for the next two to three decades plus.
What role would robotic missions play?
Continuing to send robots to Mars — orbiters and landers — is essential as we gear up to send humans there. I don’t see robotic exploration of Mars ending when we send humans there. There will be times when it will just be easier to send robots to various locations. We will have telerobotics from the surface and telerobotics from orbit. Robots are good for certain things. Humans are good for other things. But the amount of science and exploring that a human crew could do vastly outpaces that of any robots we’ve ever sent.
Can Mars exploration truly capture the public’s imagination?
Yes. Mars excites the public. When the Curiosity rover landed, there was an amazing outpouring of enthusiasm. In February 2013, we commissioned a poll with Boeing and Phillips & Co. to gauge public feelings about space exploration in general and Mars exploration specifically. We were nervous we would get very bad results because this was right in the middle of sequestration battles so everyone in the country who was paying attention at all knew we had some serious budget problems.
What were the results?
They were extraordinary. Over 70 percent of the public seemed to support Mars exploration. One of the reasons for this was obviously that Mars was in the news. But another key aspect was that we gave them budgetary context. The first question was, “What do you think is NASA’s percentage of the overall federal budget?” To answer, we gave them a sliding scale from zero to 6 percent. The average answer was 2.5 percent, five times NASA’s share. Then we told them the actual percentage and proceeded with the poll. Over 70 percent believed we would land people on Mars by 2033. A huge percentage thought it was for the sake of science, not national prestige. There’s growing support within the space community and Congress as well.
I don’t know all the reasons why the community seems to be coming together. It’s a very good development because the more we can get everybody behind that overarching goal, the easier it will be to put together a clear, coherent plan. Technically, it has been the policy of the [Obama] administration that Mars is the ultimate destination for human spaceflight. The problem is when you use the word “ultimate,” you can put it off indefinitely.
What was the goal of the Affording Mars workshop your group held in December?
We wanted to see if people agreed on Mars as the overarching goal without focusing on exactly which hardware or which destination to go to beforehand. We also wanted to see if people thought it was feasible to go there by the 2030s, which they did, and more importantly, if it was affordable. We knew that was the most complicated question. We didn’t go deep into numbers, but there was general consensus amongst the folks there that we could do this in an affordable manner.
One of your survey questions asked about doubling NASA’s share of the federal budget. Is that what it would take to get humans to Mars by the 2030s?
No. The consensus at Affording Mars was that we could do it for roughly the current budget. We need to get out of sequestration. With the presequestration budget and increases for inflation, it probably could be done. There was not 100 percent agreement on that, but everyone agreed it would not take a major increase to NASA’s budget to do it.
What’s the main challenge?
Consistency. If we can’t predict from year to year what the budget is going to be or if the policy keeps changing, obviously we can’t get anything done. It’s hard to run a program when you have these huge budgetary fluctuations and of course when we change presidents who keep changing the policy.
How do you address that?
We’re trying to build enough support in the space community, governmental circles and the public to affect the policy. I don’t have a magical solution for long-term stability. But if we can build bipartisan support strong enough to adapt to changes of administrations, I think that’s the only way of doing it.
Would a Mars mission be conducted by a public-private partnership?
I don’t know. There are numerous private entities that want to do it themselves. I think the first time we go to Mars will be in a government-led mission. But there was general consensus at Affording Mars that we’re going to need to rethink how we do things and include nontraditional players. Commercial players may help us find ways to reduce costs.
What about international partners?
That is perhaps the most important aspect. We have sustained a long-term human spaceflight program with the international space station. If it were not an international program, it probably would have been canceled long ago. It could very well be the case that the greatest legacy of ISS is international missions beyond low Earth orbit. We would have to show international partners that we are serious and that we will follow through on a policy.
What do you think of Inspiration Mars, the group led by Dennis Tito seeking to enlist NASA’s help to carry out a Mars flyby mission?
It’s shifted its focus quite a bit lately. They wanted to do their mission in 2018. They pretty much dropped that date. Now the 2021 date for a Mars flyby mission seems to have a lot of support within the community. Whether it would be Inspiration Mars itself or adapting the idea to a NASA program, the timing is right. It’s still challenging, but those extra years make a lot of difference. If we could do it, it would be inspiring, as the name would imply, and it would prove out a lot of enabling technologies.
What types of technologies?
Robust life-support systems. Without those, you can’t do the mission. If you’re able to develop them, you’ve proven one of the most important technologies we need for sending humans to Mars. It would also challenge us to overcome some of the human physiology issues, such as loss of bone mass and radiation issues. We would prove out all these theories and countermeasures on that mission.
What do you think of Mars One, the Dutch nonprofit that plans to send people on a one-way trip to Mars?
They are still saying they are going to start colonizing Mars in 2025. I’m supportive of settlement of Mars in the long run, but I am skeptical of the timeline, of their ability to raise the money and build the infrastructure needed to keep people alive.
Has the success to date of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp. in commercializing space station resupply helped your cause?
I think so. There is nothing wrong with having more players, more competition, more options for getting into space. We still can’t send anybody up into space. So having many companies vying to be able to get our astronauts into space is a very good thing. Of coursehasn’t been shy about discussion of their ambitions to go to Mars. Whether they will be able to do that or not, I think it’s great. They focus more attention on this goal. Nobody knows who will be the primary players in another 10 to 20 years. We just have to start planning, start putting the path together and start moving forward.
Is the Humans2Mars (H2M) summit becoming an annual event?
It will to the extent that we need it to be. We never intended to create another annual event. We don’t want to do H2M No. 25. If we are doing that and we are just as far away from going to Mars as we are now, then we will have failed anyway. We are definitely doing one next year and we might consider doing them every other year and holding smaller, focused programs in between years. If 10 years down the line we are planning another one, I’m not sure if that would be a sign of success for us unless there was real evidence they were serving a purpose. If we had done a flyby, for example.