NAC Gets Stuck on Mars Technology Development Finding – UPDATE

NAC Gets Stuck on Mars Technology Development Finding – UPDATE

Update, April 25, 2015:   NAC sent a letter to NASA Administrator Bolden with the final wording of its findings and recommendations on April 16.

Original Story, April 10, 2015:  The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) reached agreement on a number of findings and recommendations at its meeting over the past two days.   Its finding about the Asteroid Redirect Mission has received widespread attention, but other important topics also were discussed.  One case where consensus could not be reached was a proposed finding that NASA’s technology development effort in support of a human mission to Mars is underfunded.

The NAC meetings are lively affairs and it can be difficult to keep track of where a finding or recommendation stands with all the crosstalk and conversations.  Eventually, those that are approved are posted to the NAC website, sometimes after additional wordsmithing.  The posted versions on the NAC website are the definitive authority.    Until then, here are some of the key points and where they seemed to end up.

The proposed finding that ran into headwinds was championed by Bill Ballhaus who chairs NAC’s Technology, Innovation and Engineering Committee.   The strongest objection was voiced by Dave McComas who chairs the NAC Science Committee.

The crux of the issue was whether advocating for more funding for one part of NASA would be construed as suggesting that it be taken from somewhere else in NASA.   Basically, in a zero-sum budget environment, if NAC says technology development needs more money, would NASA, White House or congressional policy-makers agree and reallocate money from other NASA programs, such as science.

The draft finding was relatively simple and straightforward:  “The current human exploration technology plans being implemented by STMD and HEOMD are inadequately funded to make the necessary progress in the near term to have a credible Mars program.”   STMD is the Space Technology Mission Directorate.  HEOMD is the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

NAC members did not disagree with that statement.   Rather, some argued that there are many parts of NASA – indeed, the entire agency – that are underfunded and if NAC singled out technology development, it could pose problems for everyone else. As chair of the Science Committee, McComas was defending the science community’s interests, but the concern was more widespread than that.

Ballhaus argued that he was not talking about pitting one segment of NASA against another, that the draft finding was simply stating a fact that if NASA is intent on sending people to Mars in the 2030s, more funding is needed to develop the technology.  He pointed out that there are other parts of NASA for which he also would advocate more funding, such as aeronautics, but he was not doing that here.  He was focused only on technology for the humans-to-Mars goal.

In the end, compromise could not be reached.  NAC chair Steve Squyres declared “we are stuck” after reminding Council members that NAC’s strength draws from forwarding findings and recommendations to the Administrator that were reached by consensus.   Moving forward with something lacking that agreement would undermine its effectiveness, he stressed.  The draft finding was tabled for further discussion at the next meeting.

NAC also struggled with a finding advocated by NAC member Scott Hubbard that encouraged NASA to make decisions on more specific plans for human Mars exploration than are contained in NASA’s “Evolvable Mars Campaign” on which the Council was briefed at this and previous meetings.  The message was that establishing the goal of sending humans to Mars is “necessary but insufficient” and a “long term strategy” also is needed in order to build support.   It was apparent that the word “strategy” has different meanings for different people.  NAC finally agreed on a finding along those lines, but the exact wording was not finalized in the closing moments of the meeting.

Among the other findings or recommendations adopted were the following (this is not a comprehensive list  nor a complete recitation of the language):

  • The Asteroid Redirect Mission should be changed such that the spacecraft is sent on a round-trip to Mars rather than to an asteroid;
  • NASA needs to openly communicate the radiation risks associated with human travel to Mars while proceeding with plans to do just that, and NASA should develop a long term medical care program for astronauts who make the trip and long-term astronaut health monitoring;
  • It is unacceptable that NASA is not able to provide free life insurance for astronauts while they are in space nor lifetime health care after their service;
  • A requirement should be established that a large fraction (75% has been used historically) of samples returned by all space missions – human and robotic – be retained for future scientific studies instead of the current requirement that applies only to Discovery and New Frontiers missions; and
  • NASA should reconsider how it manages travel restrictions on contractors to participate in scientific conferences because its current application of the rules is a barrier to disseminating the results of scientific missions and open communications.

NAC will hold its next meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA in July.

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