The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) has recently announced a three-part plan which the U.S. space agency says will result in a manned spacecraft landing on the surface of Mars within the next few decades. The report, titled NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration, discusses phases of the mission which will include Earth reliant testing for human health and systems performance, a proving ground stage for validating spacecraft and crew capabilities and Earth independent testing for long-term spaceflight leading to a Mars landing. These tests will focus on how the human body fares during long-term flight missions as well as new power and communications systems. The 34-page plan notes that achieving this goal will lead to both commercial success and the “strengthening of America’s leadership on Earth and in space.”
Unfortunately, NASA’s Mars plan hasn’t exactly inspired the hopes and dreams of members of the House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space and Technology, especially committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX). The Hill has reported that Smith decried the report as “just some real pretty photographs and some nice words.” Smith, who would go on to criticize President Obama for proposing NASA budget cuts, said that the mission to Mars was actually a “journey to nowhere” unless NASA would be able to provide a detailed final budget and a thorough schedule of deadlines.
While it is encouraging to hear that Congressman Smith is taking a position against NASA budget cuts, perhaps he should take a step back and remind himself of the benefit a scientific journey to nowhere can lead. This is not the same as a bridge to nowhere that won’t benefit anyone. Combining science, dreams of exploring space and the human imagination has been a potent fuel for American innovation for generations.
Frankly, it is also at least a little odd to hear a NASA space initiate as being criticized as a journey to nowhere. Upon hearing this quote the firs thing that jumped to mind was a long favorite scene from the Star Trek franchise, from the Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country, where Captain Kirk is ordered to return The Enterprise to dock for decommissioning. Instead he gives an order to plot a course “for the second star to the right, and straight on until morning.” While Captain Kirk is not real, Star Trek has always done a phenomenal job of capturing the wide eyed optimism of discovery. It was always about the journey, the destination was never the objective.
Over the last 50 years one of the driving forces that has captured the imagination of those who dream of space travel has been Star Trek. For some 50 years numerous scientists and engineers have dreamed and worked to bring fiction into reality. To hear a politician talk about a journey to nowhere as a useless scientific endeavor is hard to stomach. The fundamental premise that captured the imagination of so many was exploration for the sake of exploration.
Perhaps it is wrong to make too much of one comment made by Congressman Smith, but a journey to nowhere is exactly where NASA has always excelled, at least when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, NASA has been forced to accomplish more with less in recent years, and the Republican-led House space committee knows that. A committee report issued before the NASA budget hearing on October 9th noted that NASA budget proposals from the White House had been lowering consistently since 2010. In spite of this, NASA was able to accomplish a number of agency missions, including the first unmanned flight of the Orion spacecraft as well as the first successful tests of the RS-25 quad-engine core that will power Space Launch System missions.
Republican representatives have said that they’d like to increase funding for NASA and space missions, taking a somewhat friendlier tone than their Democrat counterparts who have been keen on seeing NASA’s focus switch from space exploration to earth science. However, in June, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke out against GOP-backed legislation in both the House and Senate that would cut NASA’s budget and make it difficult to implement its plan of weaning the American space program off of its reliance on Russia’s Soyuz rockets to send astronauts into space. NASA wanted to ensure it had the budget to follow through on multibillion-dollar contracts it approved with the Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) and SpaceX.
It’s unfortunate that NASA has had to operate in such a unfavorable climate, being pushed for more and more answers out of its space exploration program while suffering uncertainty in its federal funding amounts. While there is nothing wrong with expecting NASA to do the difficult work of planning, science and discovery by their very nature are unpredictable. It would be a mistake for Congress to ground NASA unless fine details on its Mars program are forthcoming. Having a goal oriented target has proven helpful for NASA, but scientific discoveries and the innovations that come therefrom are not easily or even appropriately quantifiable on a spreadsheet, business plan or budget. Historically, NASA space exploration mission objectives have led to great benefits for the American people, even when their plans and mission goals have been a little light on the technical details.
The NASA mission to send a man to the moon provides us with an excellent backdrop with which we can critique this debate. NASA was established in 1958 during the Eisenhower administration but it wasn’t until President Kennedy’s May 1961 speech before a joint session of Congress that a lunar landing by the end of the decade became an official agency goal. At that time, we were behind the Russians, then America’s greatest rival, who had already sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit the month before Kennedy’s speech. There was no grand outline at the time for the accomplishments made toward the lunar landing by Project Gemini, Project Mercury and Project Apollo. But there was a clear mandate that America had to beat the USSR in this area of technology. In 1961, it was by no means clear that we would be able to meet Kennedy’s goal or even get there before the Russians.
What started as a political moment with its basis in the Cold War, however, turned into a race that would unlock the ingenuity of scientists and engineers from all over the world for the betterment of the American society and its people. With NASA confirming the presence of water on Mars at the end of September, and popular interest in space piqued by recent Hollywood blockbusters like Interstellar and The Martian, it appears as though we have reached a great moment that will allow for us to consider our first visit to the Red Planet.
Part of the issue at hand as to why NASA cannot, and would not, know the total budget for the Mars trip or have a perfectly detailed schedule is that the nature of NASA’s research is different than most other research and development in universities and companies across the world. Although you could call academic research “goal-oriented,” in so far as it seeks to answers a question or two for a field of science, NASA’s research is goal-oriented on a much higher level. There are technical, scientific and engineering challenges which will be encountered on the way to Mars which involve human physiology, spacecraft systems and much more, but many of those challenges are unknown today. For example, we have no idea how the human body will fare during the two to three year long mission to Mars, although we do know that prolonged space travel can weaken the bones of astronauts and cause other negative effects over time. If it turns out that special safety and habitation technologies must be produced which account for what is currently unknown, that would be a legitimate reason to adjust budgeting and project schedules. The last thing anyone, especially the astronauts that we’re sending to Mars, would want NASA to do is cut corners to try and meet a federally-mandated deadline and final project budget. The part of the mission where NASA will attempt a sustained astronaut presence on the surface of the Moon alone presents technological issues of a much greater degree than when NASA was simply focused on getting the U.S. flag to the moon by the end of the 1960s.
Rather than ask if NASA can provide a more detailed assessment of its plans, we should be asking whether or not NASA’s plans were a worthwhile investment. Again, historically, it’s clear to see that prior investments in the agency’s space travel programs has led to incredible benefits to humans on Earth, which may never have otherwise been discovered. Light-emitting diode (LED) technologies used for plant growing facilities on NASA’s space shuttle plant growth environments have led to the development of LED technologies reducing side effects in cancer patients undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments. A material developed by NASA for Viking spacecraft launched in the 1970s led to the development of rubber tires by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company which added 10,000 to the life of conventional tread tires. Heat shields developed for Apollo spacecraft led to fire-resistant reinforcement technologies for steel structures, insulating the steel for hours of additional fire protection. According to NASA, nine out of ten infant formula products sold in the U.S. today contain a nutritional enrichment ingredient developed by NASA during its efforts to use algae as a recycling agent during long-duration space travel. These innovations, and many other remarkable ones, can be perused quickly on this NASA Spinoff web site.
The inventions developed by NASA are available for private commercialization thanks to the U.S. space agency’s technology transfer office, housed at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA inventions are disclosed to the tech transfer office, which then develops a strategy for identifying potential licensees for the innovation; the vetting process includes the determination that a company is able to successfully take an innovation into the marketplace. All of this ensures that the technologies developed either by NASA or with its help find every practical application possible and enter the consumer market more quickly. Currently, NASA offers commercial business startups no-fee access to a catalogue of NASA’s 1,200 patented technologies in fields like communications, robotics in health.
An inability to secure the proper funding levels for NASA’s mission to Mars would be disastrous and would affect the American public by holding back the next wave of NASA-sponsored innovation. It would also prove to be a blow to research at American universities, which supply much of the basic research necessary for new fields of technology. Recently, the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) announced a partnership with NASA to develop next-generation weather satellites providing improved early warning systems for extreme weather events. A grant program developed by NASA has provided Napa Valley College (NVC) with $250,000 to develop curriculum in drone and rocket technologies. Anything that impacts NASA’s funding, then, impacts both private business and academic research throughout America.
This is not the first time that NASA has proposed sending astronauts to Mars. In 1969, a plan to send Americans to Mars by the end of the 20th century was drawn up by Wernher von Braun, a German-American aerospace engineer who had been musing over plans on a Mars expedition for decades. This plan, replete with orbiting space station and lunar base construction projects, was submitted to then-President Richard Nixon in September of 1969. The plan, however, was unpopular in Congress and mainstream media outlets like The Washington Post. Nixon did end approving some less ambitious aspects of the von Braun proposal, such as the Space Shuttle program. In hindsight, given criticisms which developed in time that the Space Shuttle program was limited in its space exploration ambitions, it’s perhaps fair to say that shortsightedness during the Nixon Administration hampered NASA’s ability to maintain its leading position in space exploration, which in turn threatened American dominance in the field.
In June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a commerce, justice and science bill that would provide NASA with $18.29 billion for the 2016 fiscal year. This represents a larger budget than NASA enjoyed in 2015 but the space exploration appropriations in that bill are much lower than recommendations made by some, including the nonprofit space exploration organization The Planetary Society. A recent interview of NASA’s Charles Bolden, published by SpaceNews, spoke to the negative impacts that would be incurred if Congress couldn’t provide the funding for NASA to follow through on its contractual agreements made with private space partners to develop commercial crew space transportation capabilities.
At a time when much of the U.S. political narrative is turning around the idea of “making America great again,” properly funding NASA’s priorities to make America the first country to put a man on Mars would have to be deemed as a solid step towards maintaining American dominance in the fields of science and engineering. Given NASA’s track record, proceeding with a goal oriented trip to nowhere might be exactly what American needs. We might also realize that trip to nowhere takes us to Mars and beyond.