nasa manned mars missions
June 5, 2014

NASA Astronauts Will Not Reach Mars Without A New Game Plan, NRC Report Claims

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While a Congressionally-mandated National Research Council report released Wednesday endorses the continuation of the US space program and its ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars, it also concluded that NASA will be unable to accomplish that mission using its current approach, due in part to financial constraints.

The 286-page paper, which is the result of an 18-month review of NASA’s human space flight program, said that successfully sending a crew of astronauts to the Red Planet will be dependent upon a long-term program that is disciplined, well-financed and not subject to change from one administration to another, Gannett Washington Bureau reporter Ledyard King explained.

Currently, however, NASA has adopted an “unsustainable and unsafe strategy that will prevent the US from achieving a human landing on Mars in the foreseeable future," added Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post. In light of budgets that reportedly aren’t even keeping pace with inflation only invites “failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best,” he added.

The committee behind the report, which was co-chaired by Cornell University astronomer Jonathan Lunine and former Indiana Governor and current Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, ultimately concluded that, due to the expenses involved and the potential dangers faced by astronauts, continuing the American space program can only be justified by working towards the goal of putting men and women on other planets.

Lunine, Daniels and their colleagues suggested establishing a more disciplined “pathway” approach that will establish a specific series of short and intermediate term goals and destinations, all leading up to a long-term “horizon” goal of sending a manned mission to Mars. For this approach to be successful, they emphasize that a firm commitment to the overall goal will be required, and that international collaboration and additional funding will be necessary.

“The United States has been a leader in human space exploration for more than five decades, and our efforts in low Earth orbit with our partners are approaching maturity with the completion of the International Space Station,” Lunine said in a statement. “We as a nation must decide now how to embark on human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit in a sustainable fashion.”

“The technical analysis completed for this study shows that for the foreseeable future, the only feasible destinations for human exploration are the moon, asteroids, Mars, and the moons of Mars,” he added. “Among this small set of plausible goals, the most distant and difficult is putting human boots on the surface of Mars, thus that is the horizon goal for human space exploration. All long-range space programs by our potential partners converge on this goal.”

According to King, the report presents three specific pathways, all of which culminate a journey to the Red Planet. The three different proposals have between three and six steps, all featuring a combination of manned missions to an asteroid that has been redirected into the moon’s orbit, the moon itself, and/or the Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos. The report does not endorse any of the suggested pathways, but does establish a series of principles that leaders should adhere to in order to reach a consensus decision on the matter, he added.

President Obama has been a vocal opponent of proposals to send astronauts back to the moon. Achenbach said. He pulled the plug on the Constellation program, which would have included the first American lunar landing since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, due in part to a lack of funding. Now the Obama administration’s proposed mission to Mars faces much the same budget-related issues, according to the NRC report.

Currently, the President and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden have said that the goal is to have humans step foot on Mars sometime during the 2030s. However, as Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle pointed out, the report submits that the Red Planet is most likely an unreachable destination until at least 2050.

In response to the report, NASA released a statement stating that it welcomed the paper, and that it was “pleased to find the NRC’s assessment and identification of compelling themes for human exploration are consistent with the bipartisan plan agreed to by Congress and the Administration in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010.”

“There is a consensus that our horizon goal should be a human mission to Mars and the stepping stone and pathways thrust of the NRC report complements NASA’s ongoing approach,” the agency continued. “NASA has made significant progress on many key elements that will be needed to reach Mars, and we continue on this path in collaboration with industry and other nations.”

NASA officials also said that they would thoroughly review the report and all of its recommendations.

“The key elements of that approach include the facilitation of commercial access to low-Earth orbit to sustain fundamental human health research and technology demonstrations aboard the International Space Station (ISS); the development and evolution of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft to enable human exploration missions in cis-lunar and deep space, including to an asteroid; and the development of game-changing technologies for tomorrow’s missions, all leading the way on a path to Mars,” the agency added.