NASA’s Mars plan looks like a long shot, says external panel

NASA wants to send a manned mission to Mars in the near future and has shared its plans to do so. You can read the 36 pages of its rough outline here and, on the surface of it, it all sounds pretty reasonable, but according to the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), the devil is in the details. Or rather, the lack of details. The panel has returned the plans with a figurative C+ and “must try harder”.

NASA’s Mars plan looks like a long shot, says external panel

Their annual report weighs in at 42 pages, and it’s not optimistic about the safety of any potential Mars mission with the current plan. There are two main concerns the panel has. The first is the limited budget NASA has to play with. While NASA has been granted what sounds like a massive $19.3bn budget for 2016, it’s still a drop in the pond of the heyday of the 1960s, when NASA was commanding 2.5 to 4.5% of the total federal budget. Now it’s nearer 0.5%.

And a Mars mission will be extremely expensive. ASAP suggests that the plan to continue maintaining the International Space Station is going to eat considerably into a budget that could be used on the Mars programme, noting that it costs “several billion dollars per year”. “Unless NASA were to be given a large increase in its appropriations, it is possible that continuing the ISS past 2024 may delay the Journey to Mars due to limited funding,” the report argues.

The next problem is a technical one: NASA needs to develop lots of interesting technology to get the Mars mission off the ground and, right now, there isn’t anything to see. Or, as the report puts it: “Although the document does identify a few specific technologies that will be needed to accomplish the overall mission, including Solar Electric Propulsion and a Deep Space Habitat, it lacks a top-level architecture and/or design reference mission.”nasa_budget_mars_plan

“Without these elements, it will be difficult to properly scope and sequence the needed technology development efforts to ensure that they will be available at the appropriate time.”

It may sound a bit like a “dog ate my homework” excuse, but NASA does have a very good reason for this hesitancy. It’s concerned that the pace of technological development means that anything it designs will be outdated by the time it’s required. Or, as the report says: “When questioned about the lack of a specific mission plan, senior NASA leaders have replied that it is too early for such plans. They are reluctant to design vehicles or missions with today’s technologies, since it is hoped that improvements can be made in the next 20 years that would radically change how such systems could be built.”

That’s all well and good, but it’s not going to cut the mustard with a safety report when the equipment to be used is just a preliminary shopping list of what might be handy. In short, it’s not positive reading: “Unfortunately, the level of detail in the report… does not really validate whether NASA would be capable of achieving such an ambitious objective in a reasonable time period, with realistically attainable technologies, and with budgetary requirements that are consistent with the current economic environment.” Must try harder, in other words.

There’s also the general feeling that a mission straight to Mars may be a touch too optimistic for NASA, and that it should consider a 60s revival: a return to the moon. “NASA has indicated its willingness to contribute to such a mission, but has ruled out taking a leadership role,” the report explains adding that it is “unclear how NASA will develop low-gravity surface experience and technology without lunar surface experience.”mars_curiosity_rover

Heading back to the moon may sound like a step away from Mars, but it could actually be a springboard, as I wrote recently. In short, not only can the moon offer valuable insights into living in a hostile space environment, but MIT researchers suggested a moon base could provide the perfect pit stop to load a rocket up with heavy fuel, reducing the costs of each trip by billions of dollars every year.

This is pretty important, as money is at the centre of everything with such expensive plans. And despite the limitations there, ASAP chair Joseph W. Dyer writes in the report’s introductory letter that, “we continue to be impressed with how much the Agency accomplishes with relatively little”.

Perhaps NASA will be more inclined to put firmer plans in place once the political landscape has settled for another four years following the 2016 presidential election, but there are loads more problems to overcome with Mars than mere finances…

READ NEXT: Why do we want to go to Mars anyway? Here’s a must-watch passionate four minute explainer from the president of the Mars Society

Images: NASA, Neal Simpson and brownpau used under Creative Commons

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