The crisis in US-Russian space relations may be the current top story in space policy, but it’s not preventing debates about over topics, notably, where humans should go beyond Earth orbit.
That debate flared up Thursday when NASA administrator Charles Bolden appeared before a joint meeting of the Space Studies Board (SSB) and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) in Washington. Bolden discussed a wide variety of topics in a discussion lasting more than an hour, including plans for human space exploration. He likened the free-return trajectory that helped save the crew of Apollo 13 to Inspiration Mars, whose 2021 mission architecture includes flybys of Venus and Mars by a crewed spacecraft.
“That doesn’t demonstrate anything,” Bolden said, “and I don’t think that’s an inspirational mission, if you to ask me, because it doesn’t help us to get humans to Mars.” In that context, Bolden was referring to sending humans to the surface of Mars, something he said he believed was possible by 2035. (Later in the meeting, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmaier said it would be “really tough” to meet a 2035 goal of landing humans on Mars.)
“It is a one-time feat,” Bolden added about Inspiration Mars, “and where are we in terms of putting humans on Mars? No closer.”
Late Thursday, the House Science Committee issued a statement from committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has been the most outspoken member of Congress in support of the Mars 2021 mission concept. Bolden’s comments at the SSB/ASEB meeting, Smith said, were “factually incorrect” regarding Mars 2021. “Experts have testified that a Mars Flyby mission would utilize the Space Launch System, architecture that will be central to a Mars landing,” Smith stated.
Smith went on to criticize the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which Bolden has said at the meeting was a better near-term approach to human spaceflight. “The ARM mission lacks support from the stakeholder community and NASA’s own advisory bodies. It is a mission without a realistic budget, without a destination and without a certain launch date,” Smith said, echoing comments he made at two hearings last week. “I urge the Administrator to get his facts straight when comparing the value of potential NASA missions.”