Path to Mars starts with a bold fly-by

The stakes have never been higher for the United States and its space program.  We have heard for years about the dangers of falling behind other nations in space technologies, but without a change in national policy, this previously unimaginable scenario may soon be real.  Our supremacy in space - and with it, a major engine of American technology and innovation - is in real danger of being relinquished unless we provide focus and stability to NASA’s human space flight program.  Within this backdrop, Congress will be considering NASA's budget and priorities over the upcoming weeks and may reauthorize the agency. There was some positive budget news in the recent FY 2014 omnibus bill that helped NASA recover modestly from sequestration, although despite this, it is unclear what the long term prospects are for human space flight. 

As a kickoff to this process, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will be conducting a hearing on Thursday, February 27, "Mars Flyby 2021: The First Deep Space Mission for the Orion and Space Launch System?"  The hearing will examine whether a crewed Mars fly-by mission in 2021 is a viable and valuable option for the space program. This concept was put forward in 2013 by the Inspiration Mars Foundation.  

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Despite some early skepticism, support has been growing for a Mars fly-by mission.  Many believe that this mission is not only feasible by 2021, but can also be a valuable precursor to future human landings on the planet.  Furthermore, it also is an affordable option within our constrained budget environment.  This opinion was shared by participants of the recent Affording Mars Workshop (see its full report at http://www.exploremars.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Affording-Human-Ex...).  This group of professionals advocated incremental mission planning and execution necessary to land humans on Mars by the early 2030s. The fly-by concept in 2021 appeared to be well placed within the current timeline for launch and crew architecture development.  This type of mission would prove several required capabilities for sending humans to land on Mars, including vital testing of life support systems as well as countering threats to the health of the astronauts (long-term weightlessness, radiation exposure, etc.) 

In addition to the testimony that will be presented at the House hearing, the Affording Mars working group will continue to examine Mars fly-by and other scenarios over the upcoming months, including discussions at the upcoming Humans to Mars Summit to be held this spring in Washington, DC (h2m2014.exploremars.org). The products of these wide-ranging assessments will be shared with NASA, Congress, and the administration, international partners and other interested parties, including the general public. 

It is clear that when the public understands budgetary context – that is, how much NASA actually costs – they are overwhelmingly supportive of Mars exploration, as shown in the 2013 Mars Generation Survey (http://www.exploremars.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Mars-Generation-Su...). According to this scientific poll, over 70 percent of Americans believe that we should land humans on Mars by the early 2030s.  A similar percent believe we should increase NASA's budget by a significant percentage.  It has been evident for a long time, however, that the biggest challenge to maintaining a sustainable and robust human exploration program is not engineering or science, but the absence of long-term and consistent political/budgetary support. 

This week, members of the Space Exploration Alliance (SEA) will be making their annual trip to Capitol Hill to address these issues head-on.  SEA is an umbrella organization for some of the most prominent space advocacy organizations in the United States, representing tens of thousands of people, including Explore Mars, Inc, The Planetary Society, the National Society of Black Engineers, The Mars Society, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and many others.  SEA members will be visiting the offices of over 100 members of the House and Senate.  These volunteer advocates will be informing members of Congress that whether we move forward with a fly-by mission or other missions, we need to decide now how the U.S. will proceed in human space flight over the next few decades. After all, do we want NASA to be more than a paycheck for a some of the nation’s best and brightest, or do we want NASA to explore while providing America with technical innovation, an increased high-technology workforce and inspiration to America’s youth who want to go to the stars? If a real human Mars mission is affordable without a significant increase in the budget, as urged by the Affording Mars working group, human exploration is a FAR more justifiable investment of taxpayer dollars.  Let’s decide to explore!

Carberry is executive director of Explore Mars, Inc. and co-chair of the Affording Mars working group.