Eric Berger, writing for the Houston Chronicle on Friday, stated an inconvenient truth that just about everyone outside of NASA, the White House, and even the Congress have long ago concluded. If the space agency is ever to complete its Journey to Mars, it is going to need more money. A lot more money. The problem is, despite complaints from certain members of Congress that the Obama administration is shortchanging space exploration, no one in authority seems to grasp the magnitude of that need or is prepared to do anything about it.
NASA is pretending that it can get to Mars on the budget it currently has adjusted for inflation and economic growth. That evaluation is a fantasy, according to independent experts.
“In declaring that with the current budget there are no ‘viable pathways to Mars,’ the National Research Council cited several reasons. Among them are the high costs of developing Mars hardware, low flight rates – if NASA doesn’t fly often stakeholders wonder what it is doing, and it’s difficult to keep employees engaged – and maintaining a program across multiple presidential administrations.
“With its current human exploration budget, plus inflation, the influential Pathways report found that the agency would only accumulate about $100 billion between now and 2040 for Mars-related work.
“Without a clearly defined plan or the types of rockets, spacecraft and landers needed to pull it off, it is impossible to estimate how much it would cost to land astronauts on Mars. But industry sources offer rough estimates that, using NASA’s current practices, the cost is likely between $200 billion and $400 billion.”
“Current practices” may be the key phrase. NASA might be able to bring the cost of going to Mars down any number of ways, by bringing on international and commercial partners and by going back to the moon first and establishing a refueling base.
Part of the problem is that the space agency does not have a lot of details concerning what has to happen between now and the day the first boots hit the Martian soil. The recent document NASA released that purports to be the plan for going on the Journey to Mars is in fact, groused Mars advocate Robert Zubrin, a “plan for not going to Mars.”
What is the solution to the mismatch between ambition and funding? Berger suggests, “Breaking that mold would require strong, committed presidential leadership. NASA has really only had that kind of sustained direction from a president once, under John F. Kennedy, who propelled the agency to the moon.” Of course, while Kennedy proposed the race to the moon and got the Apollo program started, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, saw the project through. But the point is taken and echoes other analysis.
The problem is that such leadership, if it comes at all, is not likely to manifest itself until the next president is sworn into office.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper