Change in NASA focus between Administrations may be greatest threat to Mars mission

By Steve Brachmann
February 25, 2017

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology

On the morning of Thursday, February 16th, the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology convened a hearing to discuss the current state of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and plans for the agency’s future. Much of the hearing focused on NASA’s plans to land a manned spacecraft on Mars within the next few decades and the stability in budgeting and planning required by the agency to meet that goal.

In his opening statements, committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) noted findings released recently by advisory groups regarding the significance of continuity at NASA, stating that without it, “The space program would be left adrift and rudderless.” Maintaining continuity to reach agency goals will be important in the years to come according to the opening statement of ranking Democrat committee member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) such as the development of private sector commercial crew and cargo programs as well as ongoing aeronautics research and Earth science programs providing benefits to the American public and private industry alike. “They will not continue without a sustained commitment of vision, resources and support,” Johnson said. “We can get to Mars, but we need a plan to do so which is sustainable over multiple decades.”

Multiple members of the hearing’s witness panel attested to the problems created when agency plans change during a change of administration, a problem which Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, a NASA astronaut during the Gemini and Apollo programs and a member of NASA’s International Space Station Advisory Committee, said has been detrimental to the space program. “We have in recent years seen all too clearly the consequences of a failure to carry out long-term objectives,” Stafford said, referring to NASA’s activities under the Obama Administration as “eight years of lost opportunities… NASA’s present does not do justice to its past.” During questioning, Stafford recommended reestablishing the National Space Council (NSC), which had shown effectiveness in the past in ensuring that multi-year NASA missions which span administrations, such as the Apollo mission to the moon, reach their goal. Stafford also noted that if the federal government had stuck to previous plans to reach Mars, such as were discussed as part of the Space Exploration Initiative carried on under the administration of George H. W. Bush, humans could have reached Mars as early as 2016.

Hon. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut

“Freedom in America uniquely enhances the human drive to explore unknown boundaries,” said the Hon. Harrison Schmitt, a former U.S. Senator and an astronaut aboard the Apollo 17 mission. Schmitt noted that it was important to answer the call of bold initiatives despite the unique problems posed by Mars. “Mars has just enough atmosphere to cause trouble on entry, but not enough to help,” Schmitt said, adding that gravity and radiation posed significant engineering challenges. With a sustained annual funding level of $20 billion per year, 30 percent of which should be dedicated to a management reserve fund, Schmitt believed that NASA could meet significant milestones in the years to come, including returning humans to the moon by 2025, lunar habitation by 2030, lunar resource camps by 2035, a crew landing on Mars by 2040 and settlement on Mars by 2045. “The multidecadal nature of the effort calls for the unequivocal and sustained effort of the nation, even more so than the Apollo mission,” Schmitt said.

The wide breadth of NASA’s scientific activities could pose a risk to the Mars mission, according to remarks made by Tom Young, a former director of the Goddard Space Center. “The current and future state of human spaceflight is cloudy,” Young said, adding that NASA hadn’t put “boots on the ground” outside of Earth since Apollo 17 touched down on the lunar surface 44 years earlier. A potential $180 billion in NASA funding over the next two decades would support significant accomplishments but Young worried aloud that there are “too many paths competing for resources,” noting that only half of NASA’s budget is dedicated to human exploration, including expenditures on the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, while the other half of NASA’s budget was earmarked for low-Earth orbit (LEO) activities including the International Space Station and commercial crew and cargo programs. Within the human exploration half of the budget, Young added that the agency’s focus was further split as to whether the future exploration target should be the moon or Mars. “Failure to decide between these competing options will result in critical resources being spent,” he said. “A detailed plan for the human exploration program is necessary.”

Yet the other programs pursued by NASA were very important to the American public as was noted by Dr. Ellen Stofan, former chief scientist at NASA. “NASA’s planetary Earth science, astrophysics and heliophysics programs continually rewrite textbooks,” Stofan said. She added that the data sets derived from these programs also proved to be beneficial to America’s economy and national security. However, she also discussed the need to maintain a focused commitment the Mars mission, which doesn’t change significantly with every new administration or Congress. “Mars will always remain 20 years in the future without bipartisan support and the commitment to make it happen,” she said.

Bipartisan support for NASA and the Mars mission in particular seemed to exist on the House science committee according to members on either side of the political aisle. “This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, this is about national pride,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA). “We’ve got to get back to dreaming big. That vigor inspired a generation of kids to go into the sciences.” “Continued leadership in space is not just about exploration,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), noting the importance that the space program had for national security and economic leadership. “It’s very difficult to explore a universe of infinite wonder with a finite budget,” Babin said.

Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, Gemini and Apollo astronaut

One of the unique engineering problems posed by the mission to Mars is determining the payload of resources that must be available for astronauts to safely reach that planet. Stafford noted that, of the 6.25 million pounds which Apollo mission spacecraft weighed before takeoff, only 300,000 pounds of the craft remained intact upon leaving Earth’s atmosphere and only 1.6 percent of the craft’s total weight prior to liftoff actually touched down on the moon. Given that astronauts typically need six pounds of water, 1.5 pounds of food and 2.2 pounds worth of oxygen, each pound of which adds 100 pounds of gross weight to the craft, and the fact that a mission to Mars would take a few years from liftoff to touchdown instead of the few days it takes to reach the moon, even more powerful rocket booster technologies would be required to handle the additional spacecraft weight. Recycling systems for natural resources could also reduce the total amount of resources needed at takeoff.

Another engineering challenge posed by a mission to Mars is the planetary alignment which greatly reduces the opportunities for landing or launching a spacecraft successfully on or from the planet. According to Stafford, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has determined that a return launch from Mars can only happen within a 60-day window every 26 months. Planetary alignment could also constrict the amount of payload which can be delivered to Mars.

Within the agency itself, Schmitt said that NASA agency planning had to struggle with what he called “political diversity,” which threatened to divert agency resources away from planned projects. “There is great pressure to deal with many different things for many different constituencies,” Schmitt said. “The agency charged with going forward with human spaceflight is going to have to focus on that.” Later, Schmitt clarified by noting that other important activities don’t have to be abruptly ended but could rather be taken under the authority of other federal agencies.

Although a civil service agency and not a military operation, NASA’s strategically important place in the geopolitical conversation was discussed throughout the day’s hearings. “It’s a wonderful projection of soft power to the world,” Stafford said. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) questioned the panel on the current state of NASA’s partnership with Russia, which Bonamici said was typically a “diplomatic success” despite a history of strained relations with the country. “[The Russians] have held up their end of the agreement,” Stafford said, further noting that Russia’s space agency was very aware of safety criteria required for mission viability. A greater threat to U.S. dominance in space was the growing activity over in China, according to Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK). He noted that China had recently sent taikonauts, or Chinese astronauts, to a Chinese space station, had successful flown a moon orbit mission and were developing weapons capabilities which could attack geostationary satellites from a position out in space. The geopolitical issues posed by China’s development of its own space program were summed up well by Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX). “They say that whatever force occupies the high ground has the upper hand,” Weber said. “Folks, there is no higher ground than outer space.”

Although long-term goals for NASA are largely focused on getting to Mars, the day’s hearing also discussed the potential for commercial development of lunar resources. Schmitt noted that the lunar regolith contained useful resources like oxygen, hydrogen and a potential fuel source known as helium-3. Helium-3 is rare on Earth but it has been detected on the moon and its use as a fuel source for successful nuclear fusion activities has been discussed. “It’s not something that would happen overnight, it takes a long view of things before you start to make a profit on it,” Schmitt said. He also noted that, unlike other forms of available fuel which could be used in fusion processes, fusion of helium-3 doesn’t result in neutron-heavy radioactive waste but rather it produces protons as a byproduct of fusion which can further be converted to electricity at high efficiencies.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a writer located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He has become a regular contributor to IPWatchdog.com, writing about technology, innovation and is the primary author of the Companies We Follow series. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 21 Comments comments.

  1. Benny February 26, 2017 5:47 am

    No hint as to why a manned mission to Mars is a NASA objective, or what such a mission could achieve beyond the capabilities of an unmanned mission. It isn’t difficult to calculate the overall chance of success of what would essentially be a high-risk test flight, or the political fallout from the failure of a multi-billion dollar attempt.

  2. Caesar Salazar February 26, 2017 2:45 pm

    Perhaps to see how far humans can go in the galaxy and the universe. That seems like what Peter Thiel wants and he supported Trump so it could be good news for NASA.

  3. Benny February 26, 2017 2:50 pm

    Caeser salad,
    I would expect NASA engineers to think things through more thoroughly than that.

  4. Caesar Salazar February 26, 2017 3:28 pm

    There have been planned mars mission concepts for many years now. There’s just never been the political or economic capital for it.

  5. Steven Brachmann February 26, 2017 7:36 pm

    Benny @ 1 – National dominance in outer space has geopolitical implications which can strengthen the international position of the U.S., as was discussed during this hearing. A mission to Mars may seem like a pipe dream, but it is precisely the kind of thing that, once successfully accomplished, automatically improves a nation’s stature in the world. Also, much like DARPA investing in robotic prosthetics has aided non-military citizens who have lost their limbs, NASA’s engineering of materials, resources and technologies necessary for keeping human astronauts safe and alive in outer space cannot fail to have an impact back on Earth and provide actual, previously unknown benefits to consumers all over the world. I see that you had commented on this article so it may be of little use to bring it back to your attention, but anyone reading this who is asking themselves how the common person benefits from NASA sending astronauts further into space may want to read this article we published on the subject in October 2015 – http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2015/10/17/nasa-journey-to-nowhere-may-be-exactly-what-u-s-needs/id=62474/. Human forays into space have resulted in safer drinking water systems, more aerodynamic designs for tractor trailers, flame-retardant materials for airplane seats and even more nutritious baby formula – http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2015/12/19/space-technology-hall-of-fame/id=63947/. We have no idea exactly what will be discovered by a mission to Mars, but when we do discover it, it will be a boon to humanity. Also, seeing as New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto required the same amount of accuracy needed to swing a club at a golf ball in New York City and then sink a hole-in-one in Los Angeles, I think NASA has proven that it can take on very difficult projects like the Mars mission – http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/passing-pluto-new-horizons-flyby

  6. Anon February 26, 2017 8:33 pm

    Benny, what – if any – distinction is there between sending a man to the moon and sending a man to Mars?

    The exact same “unmanned-manned” dynamics are in play.

    I am just not sure that you realize the cultural/Political (in the larger sense of the word) impact that such a mission presents.

  7. Caesar Salazar February 26, 2017 11:49 pm

    Anon,

    Agree with you there, a manned Mars mission would be one of the greatest achievements of mankind.

  8. Benny February 27, 2017 2:09 am

    Anon,
    Are you suggesting that a manned mission to Mars is a political, rather than a scientific, endeavor? If so, that only underscores the futility.
    It is hard to think of a single objective that could be achieved by a manned mission to the moon that could not be better performed by unmanned spacecraft at a fraction of the risk and cost. NASA sent 6 robotic landers to the moon prior to the Apollo project, and the fact that only 3 of them completed their mission – as well as the less-than-stellar success rate of robotic Mars missions – should put the risk in perspective.

  9. Anon February 27, 2017 7:23 am

    I am most definitely NOT stating that there is such a singular focus of any such endeavor, Benny.

    Underscore the futility? Quite the opposite – as evidenced by the US manned moon missions.

    It is in overcoming the risk and putting humans directly in the path is where our zeitgeist is best served. But perhaps this is only an American view (or at least, a view that you do not understand, lacking that perspective)?

  10. Benny February 27, 2017 8:19 am

    Anon,
    And all this time I believed that NASA’s mandate was the advancement of scientific knowledge (something that in space, at least, robots can do better than humans)

  11. Caesar Salazar February 27, 2017 10:00 am

    Benny,

    Space exploration is also one of NASA’s missions.

  12. benny February 27, 2017 10:09 am

    Caesar salad,
    If you are looking for ROI, you send a robot to do a robot’s job in a hostile, high-risk environment. If you are looking for drama in the style of the Apollo 13 failure and the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 near failures (they were both seconds away from mission abort at one stage), with 90% of your cost (payload, R&D, manpower) just to keep the space tourists (barely) alive during the mission, you go manned. It’s your tax dollar, not mine.

  13. Benny February 27, 2017 11:01 am

    Steve,
    I am in no way belittling NASA’s contribution to the advancement of science. However, given that NASA’s budget is not infinite, I would rather see the money spent on 10 robotic missions than one manned mission, especially given the probability that one of those missions might fail. As for the benefits to mankind in general from NASA’s research – worthy goals indeed, but equally achievable without anyone having to leave the planet.
    Without doubt a manned space mission would “improve the nation’s stature in the world” – but is that worth the price tag? Some people, in some countries, believe that the result of the recent presidential election is pulling in the other direction, and might not be over-awed by science which many do not understand.

  14. Steve Brachmann February 27, 2017 12:08 pm

    Benny @13 – NASA’s budget is what is appropriated to NASA by Congress. If Congress can be convinced that it’s worth it to fully fund a mission to Mars, any idea of “finite budgets” gets thrown out as far as I’m concerned. Further, I am convinced that a manned mission to Mars will provide a much more beneficial impact to humanity than unmanned missions. We’ve already sent rovers to Mars, so I’m having difficulty understanding how repeating something 10 times when we’ve already done it four other times would yield anything that was truly novel. (Re-reading this and I’m seeing you didn’t necessarily say 10 robotic missions to Mars, so if you had ideas for where those robotic missions should go, I’d be interested to hear.) I’m not saying that you couldn’t find answers to important questions if you littered Mars with robots, but sending human beings to Mars will not fail to render up new discoveries that will improve life on Earth. What if we discovered new ways of terraforming terrains on Mars that improves life in arid climates back on Earth? That might not necessarily be the result, but it also might; we just don’t know. The discoveries are on a completely different order of magnitude than what we would find from more robotic missions, because as I’ve written in my post @5, it requires sending humans into those harsh environments in outer space and other planets in order to achieve such discoveries that actually benefit humans on Earth. Send robots into space and all we find out is how to keep robots functioning in space. Finding out how to keep humans functioning in space will lead to improvements in human life on Earth. Sending humans into space resulted in the development of a microalgae supplement which is today used in 99 percent of baby formula sold in the U.S. – https://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/home/tech_life_martek.html. All of this might not end the conversation for you, but it comes really close to ending the conversation for me in favor of sending humans to Mars. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear you out.

  15. Caesar Salazar February 27, 2017 2:01 pm

    Benny,

    I did nothing to antagonize you yet you call me “Caesar salad.” Not sure why you resort to name-calling. I didn’t even insult you yet you do the same?

  16. Anon February 27, 2017 2:17 pm

    Benny @ 10,

    You simply believed incorrectly – or at least too shallow and missed out on the bigger picture.

    As I stated, this may come from your lack of historical understanding of the moon program, not being from this country.

  17. Benny February 27, 2017 2:59 pm

    Steve,
    Thanks for sharing your views. I don’t agree with it all, but each to his own. Take into account that engineers who love their jobs often tend to be risk averse.
    Caeser, since it is not your real name I fail to see how adulterating it can be perceived as an insult. I would never intentionally do so if it were a genuine name. I note, though, that your failure to differentiate between insult and humour proves that you are an experienced lawyer.

  18. Caesar Salazar February 27, 2017 3:03 pm

    Benny,

    Your argument is speculative. I could say the same about you, namely that since Benny isn’t your real name that I could call you something else. I’m afraid that’s a flawed approach. Please learn to read what others write, respond respectfully, and be civil. Without respect and civility, we would be in a dark place.

  19. Benny February 27, 2017 3:18 pm

    Caeser (salad),
    You are only half correct. My true given name is Benjamin, not Benny.

  20. Anon February 27, 2017 3:45 pm

    It is not opnly (Perhaps) speculative, it is nonsenical.

    Caeser, since it is not your real name I fail to see how adulterating it can be perceived as an insult.

    Anonymous and Pseudonymous interactions have a long and hallowed history in this country (think Poor Richard).

    You simply do not get to “feel” that any such are fair game and that you do not “see” what is wrong with purposefully changing them and making joke of them, Benny.

    It is crude, and rather pointless. Why do it? You only end up insulting yourself.

  21. Caesar Salazar February 27, 2017 4:07 pm

    Well said Anon, my thoughts exactly.