Due to the White House pushing for the Moon program, and its extra budget constraints, NASA won’t make it to Mars by the 2030s.
Ten years after it was founded, NASA, through its Apollo program, succeeded its first goal by landing astronauts on the Moon and bringing them back.
During its 60 years of existence, NASA kept pushing the boundaries of space and aeronautics technologies.
Now, the pioneer agency is struggling to reinvent itself in an industry that’s increasingly competitive with international space agencies and private companies all setting their sight on the Moon, Mars, and further on into space.
As NASA is celebrating its 60th anniversary, lawmakers and space experts are voicing their doubts about the agency’s ability to meet its target dates for Mars.
NASA Will get to Mars, Sometime in the Future
At first glance, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program seems to be firing on all cylinders.
In addition to its three orbiters (Odyssey, Maven, and MRO), NASA has two rovers on the Martian soil (Opportunity and Curiosity) and is preparing for the launch of the next-gen Mars rover.
After SpaceX and its hard 2024 deadline comes NASA with a more flexible timeline (the 2030s) for the execution of its Mars plan.
NASA itself has been coy about giving a hard target date for the first manned mission to Mars and has even openly discussed how money, or lack of it, is getting in the way of its Mars plan.
Will NASA meet its “2030s” window to put American astronauts on Mars?
Probably not, and the reason could be the White House’s renewed interest in the Moon, which puts an added strain on an already tight budget.
Last year, President Trump gave his “Moon to Mars” directive to NASA that puts the Moon as the primary target “for an eventual mission to Mars.”
At a Senate hearing (Wednesday, July 25), Senator Nelson said the Trump administration’s orders to NASA to refocus on the Moon will delay its Mars journey
“This year’s budget request from NASA proposed some new programs – including efforts to develop a range of small, medium, and large lunar landers – ultimately leading toward a human lunar lander. The request also included development of a human-tended “gateway” in orbit around the moon… But notably absent from the request is any mention of the Mars transport vehicle… First, do these missions help us achieve our goal of getting humans to Mars within the next fifteen years or so? And, second, show me the money!” said Nelson.
In 2009, the panel of aerospace experts known as the Augustine Commission assessed the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans and criticized the “unsustainable trajectory” it’s been taking.
The report said the goals NASA has set itself and the annual budget at its disposal simply don’t align. For NASA’s space plans to get moving according to schedule, it needs at least an extra $3 billion per year to its $18 billion annual budget.
Nelson also cited a previous report from the National Academies of Science that “found that if we only got increases in NASA’s budget equivalent to inflation, in the scenario where we returned to the Moon first, we wouldn’t make it to Mars until 2050. Well folks, I don’t think we want to wait that long.”
Nelson thinks that NASA multiplying partnerships with the American private sector and with international collaborators would help make its exploration program more cost-effective.
Chris Carberry, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization Explore Mars that works toward “Making Humans A Multi-Planet Species”, testified at the hearing.
“Our international partners want us to lead,” said Carberry, “But they have concerns that we keep changing directions. They are not sure that we are going to stick with the direction.”
Mars was the Obama administration’s priority after it halted the Moon program, then President Trump redirected the focus to the Moon once again.