In a keynote address Monday at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, NASA administrator Charles Bolden made the case that, if NASA is to achieve the president’s goal of sending humans to at least the vicinity of Mars by the 2030s, it has to follow the approach NASA is currently using, including development of both commercial crew vehicles and the Space Launch System (SLS), and without making a stop along the way at the Moon.
As he has done in several other recent appearances, Bolden made an argument for fully funding NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in fiscal year 2014: $821 million in the administration’s budget proposal. “That is critical. That is the critical first step” for the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program, he said. Getting past that “initial hurdle of getting full funding for commercial crew” will eventually free up funding for use in technology development for later human missions beyond orbit, once the commercial providers enter service, he added later.
Bolden also argued that development of SLS was essential to NASA’s exploration plans, provided it was a phased approach that started, as NASA currently plans, with a vehicle that can place 70 metric tons into low Earth orbit, followed by later versions that will eventually be capable of putting up to 130 metric tons into LEO. He warned against any effort to start immediately with a 130-ton version of SLS. “What happens if we are forced to go right to a 130-metric-ton vehicle is that we are perilously along the way to what happened with Constellation, where we have a very robust launch vehicle and no money, no assets, to develop the other systems that allow us to explore,” he said.
Bolden, though, rejected the idea that the SLS could be replaced with alternative architectures that use smaller launch vehicles and orbiting propellant depots. “The number of launches required to support a human mission to Mars begins to make it very difficult and decreases the probability of success of those missions” if EELV-class rockets are used instead, he said. If NASA waited on the development of alternative rockets and propellant depots, “we won’t get to an asteroid in 2021 and we definitely won’t get to Mars in the 2030s, in my estimation.”
Bolden also discussed NASA’s plans for an asteroid retrieval mission, which he argued was essential in developing technologies needed for later human Mars missions. “Every single moment of our time and every single dollar of our assets must be dedicated to developing those technologies that allow us to go beyond low Earth orbit,” he said. “The President and Congress—most in Congress—have decided that we should be the leaders in going places that humans have never been before, and thus we decided on an asteroid strategy.”
“Moon, asteroid, Mars, are not either/ors. Humans will again return to the lunar surface. There is no question in my mind,” he said. However, with limited resources available, NASA can’t afford to go back to the Moon now, and Bolden said that any attempt to redirect NASA’s human spaceflight plans back there would keep NASA from achieving its Mars goals. “If we starting straying from our path and going to an alternative plan, where we decide we’re going to go back to the Moon and spend a little time developing the technologies and the systems we need, we’re doomed. We will not get to Mars in the 2030s, if ever, to be quite honest.”