Senators Insist Mars, Not the Moon, Is the Goal of U.S. Human Exploration

Senators Insist Mars, Not the Moon, Is the Goal of U.S. Human Exploration

Republican and Democrats on the Senate space subcommittee insisted that the goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program is Mars, not the Moon, at a hearing yesterday.  President Trump formally restored the Moon to NASA’s plans in December and NASA’s FY2019 budget request reflects that change.  The Senators raised no objections as long as it does not distract from what they consider the primary goal —  landing humans on Mars in the 2030s.

Many congressional hearings have been held over the decades about why and when to land humans on Mars. “Destination Mars: Putting American Boots on the Surface of the Red Planet” broke no new ground on those topics.

Why?  Because humans are more efficient and versatile than robots in scientific exploration; because such a bold endeavor is certain to spawn technological advancements that benefit society at large; and because America should be first on Mars, leading an international effort.  When?  In the 2030s, which more or less was the goal during the Obama Administration although official Obama policy was to put humans in orbit around Mars in that time period, with landings on the surface at an indeterminate time thereafter.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) chairing hearing on Mars exploration, July 25, 2018. Screengrab.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness noted that for all the partisan battles in Washington these days, space is one issue where the two parties generally agree.  That certainly was the case at the hearing where he and three Democrats — subcommittee ranking member Ed Markey (D-MA), full committee ranking member Bill Nelson (D-FL) and subcommittee member Gary Peters (D-CO) — were united in their views that Mars is the goal. Nelson and Markey particularly insisted that NASA needs to provide the human exploration roadmap required by the 2017 NASA Authorization Act to delineate how that will be accomplished.  It was due seven months ago.

Of particular concern was that the new focus on the Moon may supplant the longer term goal of Mars.  In his opening statement, Cruz said: “While the Moon will provide a great testing ground in preparation for the journey to Mars, we must remain vigilant and ensure that we limit costly delays that could push a crewed Mars mission in the 2030s out of reach. Let me be clear. Mars is today the focal point of our national space program.  And if American boots are to be the first to set foot on its surface it will define a new generation.  Generation Mars.”

Cruz went on to point out how many robotic probes have been sent to Mars in the past and are there today, including the announcement yesterday of the discovery of liquid water under Mars’ south polar region based on radar data from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft.  The robotic probes are necessary precursors to human exploration, but as Chris Carberry, CEO of Explore Mars Inc., noted there are no new robotic Mars probes in NASA’s budget plan after the Mars 2020 mission.

He and the other witnesses focused on the need for priorities to be set and decisions to be made very soon about exactly how to get humans to the surface of Mars if it is going to happen in the 2030s.  He was joined at the witness table by Tory Bruno, President of the United Launch Alliance (ULA); Peggy Whitson, former astronaut; and Dava Newman, MIT professor and former NASA Deputy Administrator.  None of them objected to returning to the lunar surface first as long as it does not delay human missions to Mars.  They all also agreed on the value of commercial and/or international partnerships in human space exploration.

Newman argued that “we’ve been stuck in LEO for far too long,” referring to low Earth orbit where the International Space Station (ISS) is located.  She acknowledged the benefits of ISS, on which she has flown her own research experiments, but argued that the $4 billion per year spent on LEO operations needs to be reprioritized.  She proposed that NASA create a “synergistic” Mars Program Office combining the portfolios of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, the Science Mission Directorate, and the Space Technology Mission Directorate funded “with the necessary budget.”

Whitson spent three tours of duty on ISS.  She holds the record for cumulative time in space for any American astronaut (665 days), was the first woman to command ISS and is the only woman to command it twice.  She also holds the record for the number of spacewalks by a woman (10).  She argued in favor of a “steady cadence of increasingly complex missions” to Mars that leverage commercial and international partnerships and build on the lessons learned from ISS — a “microcosm” of what is needed to get to Mars.

Cislunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) was more the focus of Bruno’s remarks instead of Mars, though he noted that ULA has launched every successful U.S. mission to Mars since it was founded in 2006 and its heritage Atlas and Delta rockets have launched 18 Mars spacecraft over time. He advocated for a strong industrial base to support ULA rockets as well as NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).   “NASA must lead humanity to return to the Moon and travel to Mars, and SLS and Orion are going to get us there.”  ULA is jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  Boeing and Lockheed Martin are the prime contractors for SLS and Orion, respectively.

A centerpiece of his testimony, however, was ULA’s “CisLunar 1000” roadmap that “envisions a commercially established, self-sustaining community of around 1,000 people supported by some 200 companies” in cislunar space. He enthused about the abundance of resources in cislunar space, a “scant week’s journey” from Earth that will lead to a “post-scarcity human future, that’s a complete paradigm change for our civilization and what it means to be a human being.”  Cislunar space has “such resources in such abundance that it truly defies human imagination.  There are a thousand years of total global production of industrial metals just in the asteroids between here and the Moon. There’s more precious metals than have ever been mined in the history of humankind. When it is practical and affordable to access those resources, we’re looking at a human future that is completely different from what we have seen before.”

But he agreed that the Moon should not distract NASA from Mars.  Companies like ULA can complement NASA’s SLS in providing logistical support for lunar missions, he said.  NASA can “quickly transition those activities to commercial companies” and “not get bogged down in logistics in the vicinity of the Moon,” keeping its own focus on Mars.

Cruz agreed about the commercial potential of space, optimistically predicting that “the first trillionaire will be made in space.”

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