Robert Lightfoot, NASA associate adminstrator. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WASHINGTON — NASA’s No. 3 official doubled down on agency rhetoric that a human spaceflight program featuring only a single crewed mission to lunar space in the next 10 years is indeed on its way to landing humans on Mars some time this century.

At a Capitol Hill breakfast Oct. 7, NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said although the agency’s plan to send humans to Mars lacks the “maniacal focus” that characterized the Apollo program, the roughly $8 billion a year NASA spends on the International Space Station and a pair of new deep-space vehicles is groundwork for an eventual crewed Mars mission.

“We’re already on this journey, we’ve been on this journey for a while,” Lightfoot told an audience composed largely of NASA contractors and legislative aides. “Do we have the exact missions laid out for the next two decades? No, we don’t. But I would argue three years before a particular shuttle launch, we didn’t know what was going to go up on the payload of the shuttle.”

NASA has just one mission in its current budget that would take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. The mission depends on the heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule, which in 2018 would together launch without a crew to the distant lunar retrograde orbit NASA wants to use as a proving ground for conducting long-duration missions away from the comforts of Earth.

The next SLS-Orion mission, and the first to carry a crew, might not launch until 2023, NASA announced in September after a major review of the Lockheed Martin-built crew capsule. That is more than a year beyond the 2021 date NASA penciled in in 2011, when it committed to building those vehicles.

NASA’s Mars exploration plan, promoted to the public with the Twitter hashtag #JourneyToMars, calls for proving out key technologies such as long-duration life-support systems in low Earth orbit aboard the space station before using SLS and Orion — plus an as-yet-unfunded habitat module — to send astronauts to lunar space to practice Mars cruise operations such as rendezvous and docking away from Earth’s strong gravitational influence.

NASA rolled out this infographic in December 2014 illustrating its Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA
NASA rolled out this infographic in December 2014 illustrating its Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA

That all amounts to “a roadmap and a set of deliverables we’re working on, and a plan for that Journey to Mars to make it more than just a slogan or a hashtag, or something connected to a particular media event or pop culture phenomenon of the moment,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot also said the Journey to Mars will “take longer” than Apollo, but that “from a NASA perspective, it’ll be done for about one-tenth of the budget that we were doing back then.”

A NASA spokeswoman later said Lightfoot was referring to NASA’s overall share of the federal budget today compared with the late-1960s — not to the price of a crewed Mars surface mission compared with Apollo.

“NASA received 4 percent of the total federal budget during the height of the Apollo Program, and today NASA has 0.4 percent,” NASA spokeswoman Lauren Worley said. “That’s one-tenth of the budget when compared to the late 1960s.”

But even if NASA got all the money it could want, Lightfoot said he is not sure there could be bootprints on the Martian surface by the 2030s, NASA’s ostensible timeframe for sending humans to Mars.

“I don’t know if I can land in 20 years, but I can be there in 20 years,” Lightfoot said. “I’m very confident of that. But I think we’ve got a pretty good cadence and a pretty reasonable cadence. And we’re not assuming a big influx of budget.”

The Mars mission scenario he likely was referring to is one in which astronaut capsules enter into orbit around Mars or one of its moons without undertaking the far more challenging task of landing on the planet.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.