Biggest hurdles to reaching the moon and Mars are not technical

Biggest hurdles to reaching the moon and Mars are not technical
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Few government programs or policies have been able to insulate themselves from partisan politics in recent years. This has been the case not only with domestic issues but also with international issues as well. However, one high profile program in the United States has largely escaped the strident battles being fought elsewhere between the two major political parties, and that is our nation’s space exploration program.

There are unquestionably passionate differences of opinion regarding the future of space exploration, including whether we can send humans to both the moon and Mars (and when), how large a role commercial partners should play, and whether we can achieve our stated goals in space within likely budget scenarios, but these differences have tended not to be based on partisan politics.

The status of NASA activities is therefore a rarity in the current political environment, and that is a rarity that is well worth preserving. As efforts to return to the moon and send humans on to Mars begin to accelerate, we must as a nation ensure that the partisan battles that rage elsewhere do not overtake, and overwhelm, our space exploration efforts and goals.

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The administration recently announced the goal of accelerating the return of humans to the surface of the moon, calling for such missions by 2024 (instead of 2028) followed by human missions to Mars by 2033. This pronouncement is consistent with U.S. policy as established by the enactment of the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, unanimously approved by both houses of Congress, which clearly defines the goal of sending humans to Mars by 2033.

It is also consistent with the issuance by the executive branch, in December 2017, of a presidential memorandum, known as Space Policy Directive-1, which stated that it is the policy of the United States, to "Lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”

It remains to be seen whether the new Artemis Program (as this effort has been dubbed), tasked with this ambitious return to the moon in the early-to-mid 2020s, will feed forward to and enable human missions to Mars in the early-to-mid 2030s. However, the Artemis Program, if properly executed, presents an opportunity to bridge divides as well as to close rifts that have existed in the space exploration community for many years.

Even before the announcement of the Artemis Program, there had already been a nascent and growing collaboration between lunar and Mars mission planners in an effort to find an achievable and sustainable approach to both returning humans to the Moon and then sending humans on to Mars. Perhaps the best example is the work performed during the sixth Mars Achievability Workshop that was held in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 2018. This workshop assembled a diverse group of mission architecture experts, scientists, policy experts and others from both the Mars and lunar communities who identified overlapping technologies required for both destinations.

Workshop participants were able to identify several capabilities needed for returning to the moon that could also “feed forward” to Mars. In addition, they also called for a single “integrating” NASA headquarters office with budget authority to apply the results of technology, operations, and science trade studies, adding that “Lunar and Martian priorities should not be assessed independently of one another” and that “Future priorities for Mars exploration may levy requirements on lunar exploration.”

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While it is unclear whether the recently proposed “Moon to Mars Directorate” at NASA would have fully served this function had it been successfully instituted at NASA, assuring that NASA is able to integrate lunar and Mars plans among the various existing NASA mission directorates and our industrial and international partners (as well as keeping architectural development on budget and on schedule) is essential for mission success.

NASA represents an extremely small percentage of the federal budget — less than 0.5 percent. Missions to the moon and Mars will certainly require increases in the NASA budget, as acknowledged recently by NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineWhy Voyager 2's discoveries from interstellar space have scientists excited NASA planned expedition to orbit Pluto won't settle whether it's a planet NASA Administrator: 'I believe Pluto is a planet' MORE, but  the benefits and return on investment that our country derives from our space program, in terms of our economy, on our technological advancement, on STEM education, and historic inspirational achievement, are beyond dispute. That said, we hope that NASA and its partners will make every effort to find the most efficient and cost-effective plan to achieve these goals. Within that context, space exploration provides a rare opportunity to achieve something truly extraordinary for the country and the world, while only utilizing a small percentage of the federal budget.

It is still unclear how this ambitious timeline for the moon and Mars will be achieved.  One thing is certain, however: NASA, Congress, and our industrial and international partners must agree on an achievable and sustainable plan this year for there to be a realistic prospect of actually achieving these goals within the stated timeframe.

Although there are many technological issues to overcome, the biggest hurdles to achieving these goals are not the technical ones. Mission planners are confident that humanity can be on the surfaces of both the moon and Mars within the next 15 years.

As has been the case for decades, the biggest hurdle remains political. Will the legislative and executive branches agree on a coherent plan going forward and support that plan over multiple Congresses and administrations? In the best of political times, this is extremely challenging, and our track record as a nation in this regard has not been “stellar”. If we allow space to become yet another partisan issue to be bandied about, we will almost certainly miss a unique opportunity that presents itself today to accomplish something that is truly awe inspiring. Above all, the time for making decisions is now.

Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc.

Rick Zucker is vice president of Policy for Explore Mars, Inc.