UPDATED June 6 at 9:35 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — A blue-ribbon panel’s finding that NASA is not on a path to put humans on Mars drew nods from space policy experts and a pair of influential lawmakers, but not so much as a flinch from the space agency, which somehow saw affirmation in the highly critical 300-page report.

“To continue on the present course … is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best,” the National Research Council’s congressionally chartered Committee on Human Spaceflight wrote in its report, “Pathways to Exploration — Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration.”

In a June 4 public briefing accompanying the report’s release, study co-chairmen Jonathan Lunine of Cornell University and former Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels characterized NASA’s current capabilities-based approach — building destination-agnostic rockets and spacecraft suitable for numerous deep-space missions but optimized for none — as a dead end.

Landing on Mars, the committee concluded, is the only mission that justifies the decades and hundreds of billions of dollars it will take to continue human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.  Mars should be the “horizon goal” for space exploration, and NASA should hone its skills along the way by stopping off at intermediate destinations such as the lunar surface, or near-Earth asteroids in their native orbits, the report said. 

NASA says it is doing just that, but the agency’s “program of record, we believe, will not be able to get us to the ultimate horizon goal in a foreseeable amount of time,” Lunine said.

In a statement posted to its website June 4 after the panel presented its findings, NASA said “the NRC report complements NASA’s ongoing approach,” which the agency has been pursuing since 2010, the year after U.S. President Barack Obama assumed office. 

“We are pleased to find the NRC’s assessment and identification of compelling themes for human exploration are consistent with the bipartisan plan agreed to by Congress and the Administration in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and that we have been implementing ever since,” NASA said in the statement. 

A longtime space policy watcher scoffed at the idea NASA’s current approach will put footprints on Mars any time soon.

“The main value of this report, in my view, is being very frank in reinforcing a widespread recognition that we are pursuing a program that will not get us anywhere of interest for a long time,” John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the George Washington University here and founder of the university’s Space Policy Institute, wrote in a June 6 email.

Logsdon expressed doubt that the White House and NASA will implement the changes called for in the report, saying, “The White House has not assigned human exploration either the policy or budgetary priority needed to make the ‘program of record’ match any of the pathways set out by the NRC committee.”

Mariel Borowitz, assistant professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, said while the NRC’s report is not a silver bullet for NASA’s human spaceflight program, the evolving rhetorical consensus in Washington about Mars as a long-term goal makes it easier to have conversations about intermediate destinations, “particularly, the next step after the international space station.”

The Obama administration wants to proceed directly from the space station to a captured asteroid that would be towed to lunar orbit by a new robotic spacecraft. This Asteroid Redirect Mission calls for astronauts to visit the space rock by 2025, the date by which Obama had previously challenged NASA to send humans to an asteroid. 

The crew would travel inside the Orion deep-space capsule launched atop the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket. Both vehicles were mandated by Congress as part of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which also commissioned the NRC report.

The White House insists that this plan puts NASA on pace to get to Mars some time in the 2030s with no detour to the lunar surface required. The NRC panel said a return of astronauts to the Moon would help mature technology useful for a Mars landing, as well as foster the international participation needed to help pay for an eventual crewed mission to the red planet.

The chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), seized on that point in his response to the NRC study, once again blasting the Asteroid Redirect Mission as an unnecessary distraction.

“This is a mission without a realistic budget, without a destination and without a certain launch date,” Smith wrote in a June 4 statement sent to media. The lawmaker reiterated a call for NASA to develop, as the NRC panel recommended, an exploration roadmap that details the cost and requirements of an incremental journey to Mars. 

A bipartisan NASA reauthorization bill scheduled for a vote on the House floor the week of June 9 would require the agency to create such a roadmap.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), co-author of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, said, “NASA’s budget for human space exploration would have to go up more than the annual rate of inflation in order to get us to Mars.” Lawmakers should “give NASA sufficient resources to get this done,” Nelson said in a June 4 statement.

Study co-chairman Daniels sidestepped questions June 4 about where NASA would get the money it needs to beat a pathway to Mars. “Dollars is the secondary question,” Daniels said, adding that “if a change of mind on the part of enough people, and sufficient leadership, cannot be summoned, we don’t find Mars a realistic goal at all.”

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN


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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...