The head of NASA and the President’s science advisor told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) this week that the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) remained the next logical step of a long-term strategy to eventually send people to Mars, despite the protestations of some in Congress as well as “outside fan clubs.”
“The FY15 budget request keeps NASA on a steady path we’ve been following, a stepping-stone approach to meet the President’s challenge of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said. Bolden was referring to the speech made by President Obama four years ago this week at the Kennedy Space Center that called for a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025 and human missions to Mars orbit in the mid-2030s. That speech, Bolden suggested, has been forgotten by a lot of people who question NASA’s exploration plan today.
“Some of you may say the same thing that some of the committee members ask me when I go to the Hill: ‘When did you guys decide you were going to do all this new stuff?’ We’ve been on this path since 2010,” Bolden said, recounting the goals laid out in Obama’s speech. “For a variety of reasons, it just kind of went over people’s heads. But it didn’t go over our heads.”
After the back-to-back presentations Wednesday morning by Bolden and Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Holdren, NAC chairman Steve Sqyures asked if the ARM was, in fact, consistent with the goals of that 2010 speech. “With respect to the goals outlined in the President’s speech, does that mission answer the mail?” he asked of the ARM.
“I think the current version of the NASA plan is consistent with the President’s vision,” Holdren responded. “The President’s vision was laid out with very broad brushstrokes.” The ARM, he said, fulfills several objectives in preparing for future exploration as well as science and commercialization. “I think it is an incredibly valuable mission in terms of the number of purposes it serves, largely using technologies and components that are being developed with current budgets.”
At the NAC meeting, as well as several previous appearances, Bolden laid out a broad exploration strategy that took NASA from Earth orbit operations on the ISS to the “proving ground” of cislunar space, including both the ARM and future potential missions in lunar orbit or the Earth-Moon Lagrange points, and then eventually to Mars. NASA’s current programs, including commercial crew, the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and ARM, are all “interlocking pieces” of the broader strategy, he said.
Bolden specifically defended development of the SLS, citing criticism that NASA’s exploration goals could alternatively be achieved with existing smaller launch vehicles and the use of on-orbit propellant depots. “When you start talking about the kinds of missions we’re talking about, numbers of launches required adds to the complexity and the risk incurred,” Bolden said. He added, though, if cryogenic propellant depots already existed, it would have been the “optimal” approach over SLS. “But when we looked at how much money it would take to do that, and how much time, we assumed we wanted to take the path of least resistance and the path of least risk, so we ended up where we are.”
Others, meanwhile, have agitated for different uses of SLS and other capabilities than the ARM, including a return to the Moon. “I think many of your outside fan clubs and cheerleading sections are not convinced” NASA has an exploration strategy, said NAC member Tom Young, citing the lack of details and funding profiles in NASA’s current plan. “It’s more of a passion and a dream than a strategy.”
“There are, of course, a lot of different voices out there in what you call our ‘fan club,’” Holdren said, “and some of them are people who say we absolutely have to go back to the Moon and establish a presence on the surface and it’s a terrible tragedy we haven’t done that. Those folks may never be persuaded that spending $60 to 80 billion to do that is not the best use of $60 to 80 billion in the environment that we now find ourselves. People are just not realistic about the costs of these things.”
Bolden and Holdren also argued for increased spending on technology development, which has been funded at levels well below the administration’s request in recent appropriations bills. “Technology development is not a high priority in the Congress right now, unfortunately,” Bolden said. “It’s a slow, painful process, but we continue to work to whittle away at the opposition.”
“I think we have an education problem in conveying the connection between advanced technology and the ability to do the missions that most in Congress think we need to do,” Holdren added. “They think we can just go to Mars tomorrow by pouring some more money in.” That last comment appeared to be a subtle dig at interest by some in Congress for a 2021 Mars flyby mission.
“Every member of Congress will stand up and say, ‘Of course NASA has to go to Mars. Of course we have to lead the world in planetary exploration,’” Holdren continued. “But they don’t get that we won’t get there without investments in advanced technology.”