Lightfoot Confident Humans Will Be At Mars in 20 Years

Lightfoot Confident Humans Will Be At Mars in 20 Years

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot expressed confidence today that humans will be orbiting Mars, if not landing on the planet, in the next 20 years.  Using the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs as analogs for the step-by-step approach needed to achieve that goal, he said NASA would do it at one-tenth the budget of the Apollo program.

Speaking at a meeting of the Space Transportation Association (STA) on Capitol Hill, Lightfoot laid out NASA’s now familiar approach to the future of human spaceflight starting with continued utilization of the International Space Station (ISS) in the “Earth Reliant” phase, moving to the “Proving Ground” phase of operating in cis-lunar space, and eventually the “Earth Independent” phase when people are at Mars.   Acknowledging that NASA is “getting flack” for not having a plan, he insisted that there are many ways to approach the humans-to-Mars quest and none are “right” or “wrong,” just different.  The agency does not have all the missions for the next 20 years mapped out, but neither did it have every space shuttle mission laid out years in advance, he argued.

Lightfoot said the Journey to Mars will be international, take longer than the Apollo program but cost one-tenth of the Apollo budget, and result in permanent presence on Mars not “touch-and-go.” 

NASA spokesman Allard Beutel later clarified that the “one-tenth of Apollo” cost estimate was a reference to the size of NASA’s budget then versus now.  During the Apollo era, NASA’s budget was 4 percent of the federal budget, while today it is 0.4 percent, and within that smaller percentage, NASA will be able to send people to Mars.

A step-by-step approach is needed, just like Apollo, Lightfoot said.  He compared the Earth Reliant phase to the Mercury program where the basics of how humans respond to spaceflight were learned and the Proving Ground to Gemini where more experience is gathered.  Like Apollo, going to Mars will be “a huge leap,” and unlike those trips to Moon, humans will need to take what they need with them, make it en-route, or have it pre-positioned on Mars before they arrive.

It will be a multi-decadal, “truly international” effort that spans many Congresses and the space community must be ready for “a long, sustained march,” not the instant gratification so many demand these days.  He emphasized that “we need to talk about what we can do,” not about “what we can’t do.”

NASA recently formally committed to launching the first crewed mission of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), in April 2023, 18 months later than the earlier August 2021 projection.  Today he stressed that NASA is still working towards August 2021, but did not feel it could make that a formal commitment against which its progress would be measured.  NASA needs to get the uncrewed EM-1 launch “under our belt” to determine when future launches will be possible, he said.  EM-1 is currently expected in 2018.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden often says that for the first time, humans are within a 20-year window for landing on Mars.  (Bolden attended Lightfoot’s talk today and introduced him, but otherwise did not speak publicly.)  Lightfoot was asked how confident he is that humans will be on Mars in 20 years because even if funding was not a constraint, there is a long list of technical and operational challenges to be overcome.

He replied that he is “pretty confident,” though landing is a challenge, but he is “very confident” they will be orbiting Mars by then.  He added, however, that “where it gets fuzzy, honestly, is in the early 2030s. … Are we going to be ready, as a country, frankly as a society, to let those folks go.”   He agreed with an observation that it took 25 years just to build ISS, so 20 years does not seem enough time to do all that is needed for a humans to Mars mission.  “One of our challenges agency-wide, are we going to have all the risks retired. … That’s a risk posture we’re going to have to discuss. …  But I think we have a reasonable plan for where we are, pre-Phase A.”

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