Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, told critics to “get over” their opposition to such NASA plans as capturing an asteroid and sending humans to Mars. He made those remarks on Tuesday, during the Humans 2 Mars Summit at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Bolden specifically addressed the agency’s 20-year plan for Mars exploration. The NASA timeline calls for developing a new space capsule, the Orion, and powerful rocket, the Heavy Lift System. In the 2020s astronauts would travel to an asteroid previously moved into lunar orbit. The Mars mission would happen in the 2030s. Continuing research aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is also part of the plan.
Some members of Congress have called for skipping the asteroid capture mission and going straight for Mars. Bolden stated on Tuesday that he did not think it would be possible to go right to Mars. While Bolden told critics to just accept the NASA pathway, he also asked them to help tweak the plan.
The Mars mission is important for two reasons, Bolden said. One reason for going to Mars is to search for extraterrestrial life. The other reason is to set the stage for further interplanetary settlement. In a column for Space.com, Bolden stated that we could learn a good deal about Earth’s evolution from the close study of Mars, and it could help us learn more about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Interplanetary settlement is a critical goal because humanity needs to be a multi-planet species. Bolden echoed the idea also put forward by many leading scientists, including Stephen Hawking. SpaceX founder Elon Musk also favors interplanetary colonization for that reason.
Bolden stated that getting to Mars in the 2030s would be possible with modest increases in NASA funding. Musk thinks that a 10-year timeline is feasible with enough money, but Bolden rules out the possibility of some Apollo-Saturn sort of effort to reach Mars.
In spite of the cost, NASA is still focused on sending humans to Mars, and getting the money to do so. NASA’s budget of $17.65 billion simply does not allow the level of spending that a crash program to reach Mars would require. The budget of the Apollo program represented 4 percent of the federal budget, versus about 0.5 percent for the current NASA budget. Bolden suggested that a higher NASA budget would be welcome. He said that 1 percent of the federal budget as a “gold mine.”
The architecture of the Mars mission would be different from the Apollo moon program. In the case of Mars, several spacecraft would travel to Mars over a couple of years.
Columnist Dana Millbank of the Washington Post wrote in favor of robotic missions, because of budget considerations. Unmanned expeditions have the advantages of being cheaper and not putting human lives at risk.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported last year that eliminating human space exploration would trim $73 billion from the NASA budget over 10 years. Citing the increasing capabilities of automatic systems, the CBO argued that human exploration should be discontinued. Bolden counters the CBO’s reasoning by pointing out that the robots can reason and solve problems like humans. He also pointed out that if making humanity a multi-planet species is the long-term goal, then people are going to have to explore space in person at some point.
Robots don’t get cancer or radiation poisoning, which are two big risks on what would be a two-year mission. William Gerstenmaier, NASA deputy administrator for human exploration, recently asked the Institute of Medicine to reexamine current radiation exposure levels to see if would be “ethically acceptable” to raise the current limit.
Bolden also addressed a couple of other issues. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that chilly U.S.-Russia relations would not interfere with work on the International Space Station. He reminded listeners that a previous issue, the Russian war with Georgia, did not interfere with operations.
Bolden also asked Congress for $848 million for the commercial crew program. That level of spending would make it possible to start sending humans to the ISS, or on other missions, on American-owned spacecraft as early as 2017.
If NASA’s director has his way, the agency will still be focused on sending humans to Mars. The economic realities and technical challenges are daunting, but manageable, and well worth taking according to Bolden and other prominent boosters of space science.
Opinion by Chester Davis