Let’s not delay humans to Mars

On March 28, 2022, the Biden administration released its Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) NASA budget request that calls for an 8 percent increase over the FY22 enacted funding level. If enacted, the FY23 request would bring the space agency’s 2023 topline funding to almost $26 billion.

The proposed budget unquestionably supports several important programs that are applauded by the space community, ones that will help advance both robotic and human exploration of space. It continues support for operations and scientific research on the International Space Station, proposes increased funding for the Artemis Program, including the Human Landing System program, and provides funding to develop nuclear technologies. The budget request also includes $8 billion to support NASA’s science missions, the largest amount ever allocated to the agency’s science programs.

Assembling a comprehensive budget for an agency as complex as NASA is unquestionably challenging, however, and tradeoffs must be made. Not everything worthy can be funded in any given budget year. Nevertheless, with new heavy lift launch vehicles, highly advanced crew capsules and enabling technologies for human travel beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) poised to come online, we are finally on the verge of sending humans back into deep space for the first time in 50 years.

The United States and its partners should not give up on the goal – bilaterally supported by Congress for many years – of sending humans to Mars by the mid-2030s.

Unfortunately, there is language in the FY23 budget request that indicates the new target date for sending human to Mars should now be “no later than 2040.” Goals and target dates matter, and if we suddenly change course and view “no later than 2040” as being acceptable, that means, in all probability, that we are not likely to get to Mars until 2039 at the very earliest (and probably after that date). 

When to Send Human to Mars?

For multiple decades, sending human to Mars has been a distant goal — typically predicted to be approximately 20 years (or even more) away. While the administration’s NASA budget request sets the goal of human missions to the surface of Mars by 2040 – 18 years from today instead of 20 years – we can and should commit to landing humans on Mars no later than the mid-2030s. There are many reasons for such a goal and timeline.

NASA’s human missions to the Moon in the 2020s, followed by human missions to Mars in the mid-2030s, are some of the few initiatives that have strong bipartisan support in Congress. We must take advantage of that rare alignment to accomplish this grand achievement that will benefit all humanity through scientific discoveries and the development of technologies that will improve life on Earth. We are better prepared to achieve this goal than at any other time in history. Artemis I is scheduled to launch in the first half of 2022, and Starship sits on a launchpad waiting for its first orbital launch.

As the leader among space-faring nations, U.S. adherence to goals and timelines is critical to maintaining the trust of our international partners in space exploration. To date, 18 countries have signed the Artemis Accords, demonstrating their commitment to human missions to both the Moon and Mars. Never before have there been so many organizations, resources and nations committed to this goal.

A U.S.-led mission to Mars could be the greatest international peacetime partnership in history. This is particularly important in light of the complicated and tragic international situations that we face today.

International Mars Ice Mapper Mission

Robotic precursor missions are essential to achieving this goal, and NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP) has been one of the most successful and groundbreaking programs in the history of space exploration. Over the last two decades, our understanding of Mars has been transformed by this program. The MEP’s scientific studies of Mars, including the ongoing Perseverance/Ingenuity mission as well as the Mars Sample Return (MSR) multi-mission effort, currently in the concept and technology development phase, will continue to make tremendous contributions to our understanding of the Red Planet.

Despite these successes, the administration’s FY23 budget request proposes canceling the International Mars Ice Mapper mission (I-MIM), a program that would provide scientific data critical to the success of human exploration of the Red Planet. The I-MIM mission would map significant ice deposits on or near the surface of Mars. This knowledge would greatly advance our scientific understanding of the Red Planet and demonstrate the feasibility of sustainable human missions to Mars through the discovery of life-sustaining water ice.

The discovery of ice deposits beneath the martian surface will also enable the in-situ production of fuel for vehicles launching from Mars and may unlock answers to questions about previous life on the planet.

This is consistent with the recent “Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032,” which states, “A particular issue relevant to both exploration and science is the substantial overlap between studies to characterize the potential for in situ resource utilization (ISRU) and scientific measurements desired to quantify the state and evolution of near-surface volatile reservoirs (e.g., depth, distribution, and composition, in particular of water ice) at the Moon and Mars.”

In addition, I-MIM would serve the crucial role, not otherwise provided for elsewhere in NASA’s budget, of updating the deep space communications network. The current system is aging and inadequate to support human missions to Mars. 

Proposed by NASA in 2019, I-MIM is a true international partnership of equals. In addition to NASA, partners include the Italian Space Agency (ASI), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) and the Netherlands Space Office (NSO) support this mission. These partner space agencies have committed roughly $500 million for this mission, significantly more than the $185 million that NASA has pledged — a cost to NASA that is a fraction of the cost of a traditional flagship mission.

We often hear the statement, “Why the rush?” when advocating a timeline for Mars. We should instead be asking, “Why the delays?” The goal of sending humans to Mars has been the “horizon goal” of the United States for well over 50 years. We clearly have not been in a rush, and that just hasn’t worked. If we hope to ever set foot on the surface of Mars, we need to set ambitious yet attainable goals that will maintain momentum, excite the nation and the world and stimulate innovation and inspiration in these challenging times. It is time to stop saying, “We will be on Mars in 20 years,” and instead start saying, and truly meaning, that “We will be on Mars in a little more than a decade.”

Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc. and author of “Alcohol in Space.” Rick Zucker is vice president, policy of Explore Mars, Inc.

Tags Artemis program Low Earth orbit Mars landing nasa NASA

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