Bolden: "If We Don't Pull Together, We're Not Going to Mars"

Bolden: "If We Don't Pull Together, We're Not Going to Mars"

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made an impassioned plea today for Congress and the White House to work together or the goal of sending humans to Mars will never be realized.

Bolden’s remarks to the Space Transportation Association (STA) were loosely focused on the status of congressional deliberations over NASA’s FY2016 budget request, but he spent most of his time talking about the future of human exploration and the goal of sending people to Mars in the 2030s.  President Obama proclaimed that goal in an April 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center and Congress agreed in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, but the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue continue to argue over NASA priorities and what level of specificity the agency should have at this stage on the steps to getting there.

The 2015 NASA Authorization Act that passed the House in February (H.R. 810) requires NASA to submit a “Human Exploration Roadmap” to Congress within 180 days of the bill becoming law.  It includes an extensive list of what the roadmap must contain and requires it be updated every 2 years.

A variety of terms are used to describe the plan or pathway to get to Mars, including roadmap, strategy, architecture, and design reference mission or architecture.  Each has its own nuanced definition.  Today Bolden used the word “architecture” and flatly refused to provide one, insisting it would be “irresponsible” because it is too early to “commit to a specific architecture.”  He believes we are not ready to go Mars now.   Experience needs to be gained by operating in cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and technologies will advance in the meantime. 

The most recent NASA design reference architecture (DRA) was issued in 2009. Currently NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate has PowerPoint presentations on its “Evolvable Mars Campaign” and soon will issue a document entitled “Pioneering Space” to explain the outlines of what it expects to do in the next several decades.  It uses “Journey to Mars” as an overarching slogan.  They are not specific enough to qualify as an “architecture” or “roadmap,” however.

What is most needed is for Congress and the White House to work together, Bolden stressed.  Half way through his talk and again at the end he implored: “If we don’t pull together, we’re not going to Mars.”

On other topics, Bolden —

  • said the “biggest area of heartburn” between the Obama Administration and Congress right now regarding NASA’s FY2016 budget request is earth science funding.  Several times he expounded on the achievements of NASA’s earth science program — mentioning the U.S.-Japan Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) and the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) missions in particular.  He commented that NASA does not make earth science policy and tries to stay out of its politics, the agency just wants to provide the best science in the world: “Decimating earth science and saying we’re going to go to Mars is not the right way to do it.”  (The House Science, Space and Technology Committee approved, on a party-line vote, a 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill that has deep cuts to NASA’s earth science program on the basis that NASA’s unique mission is space exploration, not studying Earth.)
  • defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the decision for the United States not to return humans to the lunar surface.  Humans on the lunar surface makes sense for activities like in-situ resource utilization, but he wants the United States to “empower” international and commercial partners to take on that task.  NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) can take “all kinds of stuff” to lunar orbit, but the partners need to develop the lander:  “The United States can’t do everything.”
  • expressed confidence in the Russians and his “friend” Roscosmos head Igor Komarov despite recent failures.  His only concern is if these failures signify a breakdown in quality control.  NASA’s ISS program manager Mike Suffredini is taking part in Russia’s investigation of the Progress M-27M failure, so he feels confident that NASA will have the information it needs.
  • stressed the need for continued operations of the International Space Station (ISS) through at least 2024, but also for the commercial sector to determine what comes next for low Earth orbit infrastructure because ISS has a finite lifetime and “NASA is getting out” of that business.
  • urged Congress again to fully fund the $1.24 billion request for commercial crew (the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee approved $1 billion instead).
  • responded to a question about whether a robotic Mars sample return mission is required before sending humans to Mars (to provide better knowledge of the properties of the Martian surface) with a firm no.  He says that he knows many scientists disagree with that point of view, but he is adamant that step is not necessary, just as obtaining a sample of the lunar surface was not required before the Apollo 11 crew landed on the Moon.

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