According to a Thursday story in Space News, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden made a speech at the Center for American Progress in which he declared that if the next president deviated from the Journey to Mars program, the space agency would be “doomed.” The point he was making, that programs of that nature, have to have consistent support over several presidencies and congresses, was a valid one. The point was equally valid in 2010 when President Obama abruptly and without warning canceled the Constellation space exploration program. Bolden, however, had a ready answer for that, which may not be convincing on close examination.
“NASA’s current plan, Bolden acknowledged, was the result of one of those ‘start overs’ in 2010. He argued the previous effort, the Vision for Space Exploration, was on an ‘unsustainable trajectory,’ quoting the assessment of a 2009 committee led by Norm Augustine. The new plan, by contrast, is ‘a clear, affordable, financially sustainable and ambitious way forward,’ he said.”
Both suppositions are highly debatable.
As this author pointed out in his political study of the space program, “Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon?”, President Obama might have followed the lead of President Clinton when he was faced with a similar problem with the Space Station Freedom Program. Instead of canceling the program, Clinton ordered it restructured and brought in Russia into the international partnership. The International Space Station now flies, churning out science and technology. The only question surrounding the ISS is how long it should be kept in operation before being replaced by a commercial space station.
The Journey to Mars has been fraught with questions as to its true cost and its architecture. Most space analysts believe that NASA is going to have to get a substantial budget increase if it hopes to fulfill its goal of landing astronauts on the Red Planet in the 2030s.
Nevertheless, unless the next president is named either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, both of whom have expressed hostility toward space exploration, he or she is not likely to turn away from Mars. However, the next administration may choose to develop the road that the Journey to Mars will take. MIT, for instance, has concluded that returning to the moon and establishing a refueling base there is vital for any program of deep space exploration. Thus far neither Bolden nor the president he serves has commented on MIT’s conclusion, perhaps because it would be inconvenient politically.