manned mission to Mars concept
A NASA manned mission to Mars concept from 2009. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — As NASA develops a long-term strategy to support human missions to Mars, one think tank is turning its attention to how to make that strategy sustainable into the next presidential administration and beyond.

A forum on human space exploration, hosted by the Center for American Progress here June 3, was the organization’s first major foray into space policy, but one that officials there say will not be their last.

Rudy deLeon, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is  a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense.
Rudy deLeon, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense.

“What we’re really trying to do in this program today is to frame the big building blocks that can lead to consensus,” said Rudy deLeon, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who organized the 90-minute event. “We can then see how those decisions, that consensus, can lead to an executable program with clear objectives and goals.”

That interest comes as NASA refines its “Journey to Mars” strategy for human spaceflight. That approach starts with current activities in low Earth orbit and runs through a “proving ground” of missions in the vicinity of the Moon before human expeditions to Mars some time in the 2030s.

Despite criticism from some quarters about a lack of current details about how to implement that plan, panelists at the event had few problems with it. “It’s a perfectly reasonable scenario,” said Maria Zuber, vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a planetary scientist who has been involved with NASA robotic Mars missions.

“I think NASA has done an extraordinarily good job of laying out the technology path and the key milestones along the way to achieve the outcome,” said Wes Bush, chief executive and president of Northrop Grumman. “They’ve answered, I think, the ‘can we’ question.”

A bigger issue than the technical feasibility of human Mars exploration, they argued, is the political sustainability of NASA’s plans, including whether it will survive the change in administrations after the 2016 presidential elections.

“NASA, in and of itself, can’t answer the ‘will we’ question,” Bush said. “That has to be on the national agenda. We have to come together as a country — and it should be nonpartisan — and decide yes, we’re going to do this, we’re going to make this happen.”

“This has been NASA’s challenge all along,” Zuber said of the risk of changing political priorities. “The idea of doing something like a mission to Mars is not something we ought to be changing every four years.”

Peter Juul, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress who works primarily on Middle East issues but spends some time on space policy, said he believes there has been some progress in building support for a human Mars mission. “There does seem to be a little more coherence around getting a person to Martian orbit, at least, by the 2030s,” he said.

The event, though, offered no clear solution for creating that political consensus. The session instead attempted to cover a wide range of issues, from motivating students to pursue science and engineering careers to the radiation hazards of human Mars missions. It also included a keynote address by Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, who primarily discussed military space policy, not human spaceflight.

Notably absent on the panel was NASA. “Our hope is that we’ll be doing a follow-up program with NASA, and also some of the entrepreneurs who have been talking about reinvigorating our efforts in space,” deLeon said.

DeLeon, a former deputy secretary of defense, emphasized the importance, and the difficulty, of developing agreement on why NASA should send humans to Mars. “The details of the line items are very important because that’s operationally how you’re going actually to do it,” he said. “But creating the consensus to do a major policy initiative is often more difficult.”

While the event didn’t answer the question of how to develop that consensus, deLeon was optimistic it could be done. “The challenge is to go forward and earnestly start this debate,” he said. “The country understands that a trip to Mars is within our grasp.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...