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NASA Can’t Afford to Send People to Mars

NASA Can't Afford to Send People to Mars

NASA just announced that its long planned Mission to Mars may be delayed because it doesn’t have the budget to send people to Mars.

While NASA has been busy preparing to shoot asteroids and snapping pics of Jupiter, its top priority over the last decade and the next two decades to come is to send humans to Mars and get them home safely. According to NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, however, that dream is in deep trouble – not because of technology or planning, but because of money.

For years now, the goal has been to send people to Mars at some point during the 2030s. It is an ambitious goal, but far more realistic than when President Kennedy announced that the U.S. would send people to the moon within a decade. The main difference is that during the Space Race NASA had the support of the country, both morally and financially. Unfortunately, things have changed.

NASA’s current budget is a fraction of what it once was. And despite several impressive successes that captured the imagination of the world, it is still very much a secondary priority when it comes to federal spending. NASA did manage to garner a tiny budget increase – a notable accomplishment in an era of slashing budgets – but it isn’t nearly enough to meet its goal.

“I can’t put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is the other piece is, at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars,” said NASA’s William H. Gerstenmaier, responding to a question about when NASA will send humans to the surface of Mars. “And that entry, descent and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.”

The problem is that NASA has to build every piece of equipment for the Mars mission completely from scratch, using new technology and techniques that have never been done. It is currently working on the Orion spacecraft and its RS-25 rocket. Those are, of course, vital steps, but they are only a few of many. Once those two projects are complete – not counting the years of testing – there are other steps to take, including possibly building a refueling base on, or in orbit around the Moon.

Then NASA still needs to make sure the crew can travel to Mars without suffering from things like solar radiation, ensure that their ship can survive any minor impacts from micrometeoroids, and come up with redundancies for things like food and water in case something goes wrong. Once that is done, the next major hurdle is how to land on Mars, where to stay when they are there, and how to get back into orbit and return to Earth.

There are plenty of theories on how to do every one of these steps, but at the moment that’s all they are – theories. They will need to be designed, tested, re-tested, and so on. It is a major undertaking – one of the most significant undertakings in human history – and that is tough to accomplish when its budget is a fraction of what is necessary.

Gerstenmaier’s announcement is unsurprising, but also depressing. NASA has enthusiastically endorsed the idea of putting people on Mars, and politicians have been quick to add their support, especially given that supporting a human endeavor of that magnitude is one of the few things that transcend partisan politics – partly because it costs nothing to support something that is still at least 10-15 years away at the absolute minimum. The realities of a federal budget are more complicated, but in the abstract, it’s hard to not be at least a little excited about exploring another planet.

The lack of budget also means other major missions may be in jeopardy. Without additional funding, returning to the Moon may be out of reach, and sending people to the asteroid belt or beyond might be impossible. Even some of the more ambitious probes NASA is hoping for – like one to the Jovian moon of Europa or a probe ot Saturn’s moon Titan – may also be at risk.

There is still hope though. The Mars mission could always strike a chord with the public and earn NASA a bigger budget, or, more likely, private organizations could help shoulder some of the burdens. Companies like SpaceX and Boeing would jump at the chance to have their logo on the Red Planet, and SpaceX is already planning to send an uncrewed mission to Mars in 2018 and maybe even a crewed mission there in 2025. At the moment, however, that seems like a longshot, especially if NASA is years behind schedule.

This also doesn’t mean NASA won’t go to Mars, just that it’s unlikely that we will get there in the 2030s. The lack of funding may push the mission back a decade or more, but it won’t stop the space agency from continuing to develop the technology (with the help of private corporations), but without a concerted effort, it will take time.

 

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