U.S. space policy experts are looking for hints from President-elect Trump’s transition team on how they will view and change NASA’s space exploration goals, particularly in the highly visible area of human spaceflight. Change is certainly on the way.
President Obama said publicly in October that the nation’s clear goal is to send humans to Mars on a round-trip expedition sometime in the 2030s. Initial expeditions will eventually lead, he said, to extended visits and a permanent outpost. He noted that NASA is working with industry to develop new, space-qualified habitats to “sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.” NASA’s NextSTEP program has asked industry teams to propose an array of habitat technologies that can be tested at the ISS, and eventually in lunar orbit.
The President also stated that U.S. space leadership will benefit us in areas of energy, medicine, agriculture, and artificial intelligence, while delivering a better understanding of Earth’s environment.
I was surprised that President Obama spoke about space during October: it’s a topic that is very rarely on his radar screen since his “we’re going to an asteroid” speech of April 2010. Of course, he directs an agency, NASA, that often talks about our Journey to Mars, but this is to my mind the first time the President has stated that “humans to Mars” is a declared U.S. goal.
A clear goal for NASA and the nation in space is all to the good. The president is right about the benefits to the US of deep space exploration. Space exploration will also help us expand our economy into space to create new jobs, energy production, and research facilities in space.
But the President has not followed up on his own rhetoric. The fact is that in 2010 the president canceled our planned return to the Moon, substituted a call for an asteroid mission in the mid-2020s, then provided no funds to achieve that goal. Now, nearly 7 years later, he’s proposed a Mars goal, but has neglected the hard work needed to fund and build consensus toward it.
For example, his budget for NASA has not kept pace with the Mars goal. President Obama is not funding:
- The new rockets and spacecraft which will be needed to reach the 2030s Mars goal. The Space Launch System and Orion by themselves cannot reach Mars. This booster and spacecraft are already being slow-walked by the administration, even before the SLS has made its first test flight (now scheduled for late 2018).
- Nuclear propulsion to reduce Mars trip times and thus, radiation exposure.
- Radiation shielding and countermeasures for astronauts on 3-year-long roundtrips to Mars (needed to prevent cancer and neurological damage).
- A plan for creating and testing the reentry and landing technologies needed for landing humans on Mars. So far, we have managed to put just a ton at a time on Mars—once. We’ll need to land at least 25 tons at at time for any piloted mission.
- Methods to tap water ice or water-bearing minerals on the Moon and on asteroids, and process them into rocket fuel and life support oxygen and drinking water.
Despite NASA’s oft-touted Journey to Mars and the President’s October declaration of Mars as a national spaceflight goal, his NASA budget does not provide funding that can eventually achieve that objective. The President’s Mars goal is just 20 years away, but we have a tremendous amount of technical and biomedical homework still ahead of us. We are not tackling this list of tasks at a pace to put humans on Mars by 2035.
The biggest challenges are radiation protection, and the technology to land big habitats and return vehicles for astronauts. Just slightly less daunting are the technologies needed for life support systems and deep-space habitats to support crews on Mars expeditions. These living spaces will need radiation shielding (perhaps a cosmic-ray-absorbing jacket of water, or sandbags of regolith mined from the Moon or asteroids). NASA is already researching deep space habitats with industry teams through its NextSTEP program in 2016.
The way to actually reach Mars, rather than just talk about it until the next administration, would be to start building and testing the needed spaceflight systems as soon as possible, accomplishing short-term milestones and building on those to achieve a true deep space presence.
Life support and spacesuit testing should move to the International Space Station immediately. By 2020, put a crew aboard the new Orion and Space Launch System (SLS) and conduct visits to a habitat around the Moon. Crews would stay for about a month while operating surface rovers on the lunar far and near sides. Commercial firms would build the rovers and ship cargo and supplies to the lunar orbit habitat.
With five years of habitat testing and experience, assemble in Earth orbit the elements of a near-Earth asteroid mission: habitat, propulsion, power, radiation shielding, and an Orion return spacecraft. Launch a crew to a nearby asteroid, on a mission lasting 6 months to a year, taking American astronauts millions of miles from Earth.
With a couple of near-Earth asteroid missions accomplished, NASA would have the skills to lead an international partnership to the Mars system, aiming for a mission to the Martian moons in the early 2030s. The proven deep space habitat would be married to a new propulsion and power system (a nuclear reactor system) to reach Mars orbit and an encounter with the small moons Deimos and Phobos.
Propellant for this mission could be mined from the Moon or furnished from nearby asteroids, extracted by robots. Use of space resources from the Moon, asteroids, and Mars system will drop the cost of eventual expeditions to the red planet.
With astronauts in Mars orbit in the 2030s, extracting water (and propellant) from the minerals there, we could then land habitats and power systems on Mars itself, there to be readied by robots for the arrival of a human expedition. A US-led, international Mars expedition could be safely undertaken by 2040.
To undertake this American expansion to and beyond the Moon, the NASA budget must rise, but not dramatically. After losing 3 percent in buying power over the past five years, NASA’s budget should be raised from $19 billion to $25 billion over the next 5 years. That new total is still just 0.6% of $4 trillion federal budget. If the new president makes this initial commitment and then keeps the NASA budget pacing inflation after 2020, we will show the U.S. is serious about expanding into deep space.
A clear goal—dominance of space between the Earth and the Moon—and a long-range plan to search for life on Mars with human explorers will preserve our leadership in space exploration, and bring new wealth from space technology and new-found space resources into our economy. That’s another way to revive American fortunes at home and around the globe.
Tom Jones is a PhD planetary scientist, veteran astronaut, and author of the new Smithsonian Book: “Ask the Astronaut: A Galaxy of Astonishing Answers to Your Questions on Spaceflight.”