WASHINGTON — Despite uncertainty about the new administration’s plans for space, NASA and industry officials remained confident the agency remained on track to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.
The confidence, expressed in a series of presentations at the Humans To Mars Summit here this week, is based in part on language in a NASA authorization bill signed into law in March that directs NASA to study plans for human Mars missions that would launch as soon as 2033.
“Everybody believes that our horizon goal, as an agency, is to get to Mars,” said NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot in a speech at the conference May 9. “The current administration and the current Congress is very supportive, I think, of this goal.”
A clear sign of that interest, many at the conference argued, was the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, which President Trump signed into law March 21. The bill reaffirms Mars as a long-term goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program, and directs the development of a “roadmap” that outlines the series of missions needed to accomplish that goal. It also requires NASA to study a human Mars mission in 2033, a year that offers a particularly favorable launch window for missions to the red planet.
“This was a huge deal for us,” said Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for policy and plans in NASA’s human exploration and operations mission directorate, in a talk later the same day. “Both houses of Congress and both parties are really behind extending human presence deeper into the solar system.”
Williams noted that Mars is mentioned 74 times in the new authorization act, which he interpreted as growing support for the goal. “It’s keeping with the progress that we’ve made and the confidence that we’ve built in the Congress that this is the right thing for us to do,” he said.
That assessment is shared by Mars advocates as well. “We had an administration change and yet still had strong bipartisan support for NASA,” said Michael Raftery, a former Boeing executive who serves on the board of Explore Mars, the organization that held the conference, in a May 9 speech.
“In the act is some of the strongest language that we’ve ever seen associated with endorsing a mission to Mars,” he said. “So this is a really good harbinger for the Mars community.”
NASA’s focus on Mars in the last few years has helped the agency in Congress, one former staffer argued. Congressional appropriators “have managed to increase NASA’s budget in a very challenging budget environment by about $3 billion over the last three or four fiscal years,” said Tom Culligan, vice president at The Brimley Group and a former staff member on the House Appropriations Committee, during a May 9 panel discussion.
“It’s a great moment in time if you are focused on a destination like Mars,” he said. “I think what we’ve seen drive this increase in NASA’s budget, at least I would argue, is largely the emphasis on Mars and the capabilities like SLS and Orion that are working to get us there.”
The “sweet spot” of 2033
Continuity was a major theme of the conference, with both NASA and companies stressing progress on current plans, including concepts for a cislunar habitat called the Deep Space Gateway, rather than announcing new initiatives. Several companies, including Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital ATK, presented their takes on that concept, including work they’re doing with NASA on habitation module concepts under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, program.
Representatives of those companies agreed that it’s feasible to get humans to Mars, either in orbit around the planet or on the surface, as soon as 2033. They were skeptical, though, about accelerating that timetable when asked about comments Trump made in a April 24 call to NASA astronauts on the International Space Station where he suggested he wanted to see humans to Mars by the end of his first or second term in office.
“It would be very difficult for The Boeing Company to produce any milestones by 2020. It depends on SLS and Orion,” said Matt Duggan, manager for exploration at Boeing. “I would say 2033 for the Boeing architecture for footprints on Mars.”
Others shared that assessment. “We see 2033 or 2035 as the sweet spot for boots on the ground,” said Mike Fuller of Orbital ATK.
An exception was SpaceX, which last year released an architecture that called for human missions to Mars starting in the mid-2020s. Paul Wooster, the lead for technical development of that Mars architecture at SpaceX, reiterated those plans at the conference. “I think having people on Mars in the mid-2020s is something that is achievable,” he said, “but it will take a lot of work to make that happen.”
SpaceX’s plans call for a series of uncrewed missions, called Red Dragon, originally set to launch in 2018. The company said earlier this year, though, that the first Red Dragon mission would slip to 2020 as the company focused on its commercial crew and Falcon Heavy programs in the near term.
That 2020 window, though, may now feature two Red Dragon missions. “We start out the top of that opportunity with a SpaceX launch of a Red Dragon,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, discussing the large number of Mars missions planned for launch during the 2020 launch window during a May 9 panel. “That will be followed at the end of the opportunity, we believe, with another Red Dragon.”
While emphasizing the continuity of ongoing Mars missions and mission planning, conference attendees also wondered what changes, if any, the Trump administration might make to those plans. That includes the comments from April about potentially accelerating the timetable for human Mars missions.
Kenneth Hodgkins, director of the State Department’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology, said during a May 11 panel that he has not spoken with the president about space, but offered his personal opinion about what he might want to do, based on the public comments the president has made.
“I have a fairly good idea of what he’s looking at,” he said. Space, he argued, would be a priority for the administration, and that international cooperation would remain a key element of any future plans.
“To me it’s fairly clear: the president wants something big,” he said. “He’s not going to be excited about announcing a follow-on Earth observation satellite. He’s going to be excited about announcing a big exploration program.”