The recent Human to Mars Summit in Washington had a spirited discussion of when would humans get to Mars and who would they be. The NASA program, Journey to Mars, was criticized by those who want it done their way (usually with technology not yet funded or planned) and by those who do not think it is fast enough. Common to most critics is their recommendation for significantly more funding and a citation that “all that is lacking is the political will.”
The lack of political will is amply testified to by the lack of interest in the subject by all political campaigns, past and present. Hand-wringing at space conferences isn’t likely to change that. Wishing to do Mars exploration differently than proposed by NASA is intellectually satisfying but lacks any of requisite institutional or systematic program development needed for such a complex endeavor. It also lacks funding. These two factors will almost certainly result in a paralysis of progress whereby nothing is achieved that advances humans toward Mars.
The House Appropriations Committee may have just induced such a paralysis by proposing to block funding for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). This mission represents the first step in the Journey to Mars, advances needed technologies for Mars and gives Orion and SLS their first real exploration mission. If their action to stop ARM is allowed to stand, there will be no human space exploration earlier than 2030: a delay of at least 5, and more likely 10 years, in any journey to Mars.
The space community’s lack of support for NASA and ARM is a shot in our foot. Its political lesson, of undermining a presidential initiative for a human Mars goal, will not be lost. The community’s fractionation, whereby the scientists are happy with their robotic missions, the industry is happy with their rocket contracts, and the technologists are happy with their flight demonstrations, leaves out only the public who would like to see a grander human venture marshalling the talents of all these communities.
There will plenty of human space flight — building of rockets and capsules, drawings of proposed habitation modules, and more missions to low Earth orbit by commercial rockets — but no human space exploration. It is functionally equivalent to the Nixon Administration telling NASA to build a rocket (the shuttle) but go nowhere and give it no mission. Rolling back the Journey to Mars as House appropriators now propose will leave humans floundering in space. In the most optimistic scenario they might get to fly some longer missions in a hab module, but not do any science or exploration. These relatively uneventful flights will generate neither political will nor more funding for ambitious space ventures. Indeed, they may result in diminished public interest and increased public frustration, which could perhaps lead to the complete abandonment of human space exploration by NASA, leaving that task to the robots.
Louis Friedman is Executive Director Emeritus of The Planetary Society