Renewed hope of a mission to Mars

Speculation regarding potential shifts in domestic and international policy as a result of the recent election has been running rampant lately, and U.S. space exploration policy is no exception. Space professionals and policy makers alike are hypothesizing and prognosticating about what they believe the future will bring in space, but in reality, these are all, at best, just educated guesses.

Ordinarily, space exploration policy differs from most other issues, as space policy decisions tend to be bi-partisan and do not normally lead to the usual party-based ideological disagreements. The main exception to this rule, however, often occurs when a new president is inaugurated. 

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New administrations sometime view the program of record as symbolic of the previous administration. As such, attempts are made to change direction or scuttle the existing program entirely. With an election cycle of only four or, at most, eight years, this makes it difficult or sometimes impossible to complete a major space initiative that, by its very nature, requires multi-year, if not multi-decadal, commitment. Thus, we sometimes are caught in a vicious political cycle that seriously hampers our ability to achieve ambitious goals in space exploration.

There is hope, however, that we may actually be able to avoid this self-defeating cycle.  For many years now there has been unprecedented broad-based support for human missions to Mars. This has been one of NASA’s official goals under multiple administrations (both Republican and Democrat) and is reflected in the NASA Authorization Acts of 2005, 2008, and 2010, each of which contains strong language supporting human exploration of Mars.

More recently, in 2015 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2015 [H.R. 810], which stated that, “Human exploration deeper into the Solar System shall be a core mission of the Administration. It is the policy of the United States that the goal of the Administration’s exploration program shall be to successfully conduct a crewed mission to the surface of Mars to begin human exploration of that planet...”. This past month, the U.S. Senate passed its own version, the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016 (S.3346). The Senate bill contains the strongest language supporting human missions to Mars ever to be placed in legislation, including that a key objective of our space program is a crewed mission to the surface of Mars, and also tasking NASA to study a Mars human space flight mission to be launched in 2033. The House and Senate bills have yet to be reconciled, but together they express strong, bipartisan support in Congress.

Congress is far from alone in this commitment to Mars exploration. Major American corporations have invested substantial time and resources to advance this goal. Companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and others have been developing innovative approaches for sending humans to Mars in an affordable and sustainable manner. In addition, public interest is clearly at an all-time high, as evidenced by the number and popularity of Mars-themed television shows and movies.

With such broad-based support, one would think that Mars plans would have a smooth path forward. Unfortunately, there are certain enclaves within the space policy field that are trying to set aside this historic alignment, calling instead that we focus almost exclusively on the Moon.  Some contend that travel to Mars is not possible without a return to the Moon first, arguing that industrializing the lunar surface to turn ice (believed to be in some remote lunar craters) into oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel is necessary for even limited, exploratory Mars missions. However, it remains unproven whether the unprecedented expenditure of resources that would be required to build the required infrastructure on the desolate lunar surface to utilize those resources, about which very little is known, makes economic sense or is even possible within several decades.

Utilizing local resources will be important to sustainable human Mars exploration, but it will be most cost-effective when it is done on the surface of Mars. Oxygen and carbon can be extracted easily from the atmosphere. Water can be extracted either from deposits of water-rich minerals or from the massive amounts of buried water ice that are present on Mars. Water has many uses, including producing methane as fuel for the return trip. Using locally produced resources to fuel the return vehicle, for example, would dramatically reduce what must be carried from Earth and this would reduce the overall cost of such missions.

There are credible reasons for returning to the lunar vicinity, including operations in "cis-lunar space," a region in space in relative close proximity to the Moon, but such reasons should be critically assessed within the context of landing astronauts on Mars by the early 2030s. 

Unquestionably, current mission plans need more development if we are going to reach Mars in the 2030s. However, major decisions need to be made soon in order to accomplish this goal.  The executive and legislative branches have an historic opportunity for the United States to lead an ambitious and achievable path forward in space exploration, a path that will lead humanity to Mars.

Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc. Rick Zucker is Vice President, Policy, of Explore Mars, Inc.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.