Sorry, Mars Fans–NASA Can’t Afford the Trip

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nasa can't afford the trip
Dotted Yeti | Shutterstock.com

NASA’s human spaceflight director dropped a bombshell, saying they can’t afford a crewed mission to Mars. The agency may instead focus on its Moon plans.

For five years now (Aug 6 2012-2017), the Curiosity rover has been exploring and studying Mars up close and personal.

To celebrate Curiosity’s 5th anniversary, NASA posted a series of videos, highlighting the important moments of its Martian exploration.

Now NASA says it can't afford a crewed mission to Mars.Click To Tweet

If the mission and special occasion hint at a bright future ahead for Mars and space exploration in general, Curiosity won’t be joined by human explorers anytime soon, at least, not from NASA.

Sorry, Can’t Afford the Price tag to Mars!

NASA’s made its inspiring Journey to Mars a priority of its space program and, for years, has been developing the capabilities that enable landing humans on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.

NASA has regularly communicated its Mars plans, inspiring many people and raising high hopes. A dream which seemed even more feasible by the recent innovations in space technologies and NASA’s own projects, including the new Orion Spacecraft and the new SLS rocket.

orion spacecraft
Orion Spacecraft | NASA.gov

However, with budget cuts everywhere except defense spending in the U.S., perhaps we should have seen this coming. NASA blatantly cited budgetary reasons for why the Martian journey will not happen anytime soon.

The news broke last month when, at a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, William H. Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight, said the agency lacked the budget to carry on its Martian journey.

… through the 2030s, I can’t put a date on humans on Mars,said Gerstenmaier.

And the reason really is … at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars.

The Moon Instead?

Despite our surprise, naysayers had already expressed doubts about the agency’s Martian plan.

In a report entitled, “Pathways to Exploration”, the National Research Council heavily criticized NASA’s strategy for landing crews on Mars, as, at that time, the funds didn’t align with the work needed and the timeframe.

In a direct reaction to NRC’s report, NASA released a statement where it revalidated its plan and reassured it would continue the path goal toward which it had allegedly made significant progress.

It’s only now that NASA has openly admitted it can’t afford building the spacecraft necessary to land on and ascend from Mars because the Space Launch System (SLS rocket) and Orion spacecraft design and testing had already taken up much of the budget.

SLS
SLS rocket with Orion Spacecraft | Nasa.gov

The U.S. Congress allocated NASA $19.5 billion USD as a budget for NASA’s 2017 fiscal year, yet the agency hasn’t specified the exact figure it needs to land crews on Mars.

Experts from within NASA have estimated the cost of a crewed mission to Mars to be $100 billion USD over 30 to 40 years, and more recent estimates take that figure up to $1 trillion USD.

Responding to questions, Gerstenmaier said sending a human mission to Mars is still a goal for the agency–it’s just not a priority anymore.

… we have the ability with Deep Space Gateway to support an extensive Moon surface program,” Gerstenmaier said. “If we want to stay focused more toward Mars we can keep that.

The Trump administration, re-launching the National Space Council, officially promised a new era of space exploration that would see “American boots get back to the moon” as well as land on Mars.

NASA seem to be letting its options open to whatever works, financially and politically speaking, but now the moon is a more feasible destination. NASA might have to settle for affording a lunar outpost and one SLS rocket flight per year.

How could private space companies like SpaceX take up the slack and land humans on Mars?

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