If NASA’s journey to Mars is impossible, you would never know it by hearing NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden speak. In remarks and responses to questions given at an event hosted Tuesday, October 28th, by the Center for American Progress (CAP), Bolden expressed nothing but optimism for America’s future as the world’s leading space agency and, despite the many challenges along the way, NASA’s eventual success in being the first space agency to land a human on Mars.
The event, entitled Human Space Exploration: The Next Steps, was led off with opening remarks by Rudy deLeon, a senior fellow at CAP. Near the start of this second event in CAP’s ongoing series on human space exploration, deLeon heralded some positive news for NASA in the form of the U.S. Senate’s approval of a two-year budget agreement earlier that day, helping to solidify at least some of NASA’s financial future. “At least for a period long enough to catch our breath,” deLeon explained.
Bolden began his remarks with an anecdote about the Greek philosopher Thales, a story that goes back to a dialogue written by Plato, about how the philosopher was so intent on searching the heavens that he trips and falls into a well that he doesn’t see. “In a sense, that’s the old way of thinking about space and space exploration,” Bolden said, noting that only focusing on space distracts us from all of the benefits that the exploration of space has provided for humans back here on Earth.
We’ve recently reported on NASA’s Journey to Mars and the lukewarm reception given to the mission’s outline by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology. NASA has been laying major groundwork for a mission to the Red Planet since an April 2010 speech by President Obama at the Kennedy Space Center during which he said that he expected “to be around to see” a manned mission to Mars. NASA has lately been making steps towards sending humans to Mars, successfully completing recent tests of the RS-25 engine cluster that will power future Space Launch System missions. At the CAP event, Bolden noted a long yet non-exhaustive list of benefits for the American public and the entire world which have stemmed from NASA space exploration, including medicines, radio and TV signal reception, firefighter protections, alternative energies and even baby formula. Bolden did note that, despite the popular misconceptions, NASA was not responsible for the invention of velcro or Tang.
NASA’s plans for human spaceflight have in some way languished in the decade leading up to their announcement about pursuing manned missions to Mars. Bolden noted and even commended the January 2004 decision by former President George W. Bush to retire the Space Shuttle after an August 2003 report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board which suggested “that it is in the nation’s interest to replace the Shuttle as soon as possible as the primary means for transporting humans to and from Earth orbit.” Bolden also commended the Shuttle itself, saying that there’s “never been a vehicle quite like it” and calling it the “world’s largest glider,” a reusable spacecraft with the capability to take eight astronauts and a 60-foot payload bay into space.
Bolden gave much credit to the 2010 speech given by Obama at the Kennedy Space Center for putting NASA back on a positive path towards human exploration of space. Along with commitments to new scouting missions to Mars and building an advanced space telescope, Obama announced that “by the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.” Focusing on a manned mission to Mars and extending the life of the International Space Station would lead to real benefits on Earth, Bolden said, in the form of more jobs and technological developments pursued along the way. Bolden also ticked off a list of consumer products and infrastructure improvements in a wide variety of fields fueled by NASA innovation, including memory foam, solar panels, baby formula, radio/TV signaling and artificial limb technology. “Despite the popular misconception, we take no credit for velcro or Tang,” Bolden said.
A big piece of the puzzle for getting the journey to Mars underway is the development of the commercial crew program to send astronauts into space via transportation capabilities developed in partnership with private American companies. NASA’s top two private partners in this program are the Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) of Chicago, which has received $4.82 billion in commercial crew funding, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, CA, and the recipient of $3.14 billion in commercial crew funding. In total, Bolden noted the 350 American companies working across 35 states working towards bringing American astronaut launches back onto American soil. Currently, it costs NASA $82 million to send one astronaut into to space on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the only available option for space travel since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. “Maybe it’s just me,” Bolden said, “but I believe that the greatest country on Earth shouldn’t be solely reliant on other countries to get our astronauts to space.” A difficulty in securing funding was cited as the major setback to increasing commercial crew development.
Other countries rely on America to take the lead in space travel, however. Bolden recounted remarks made by former director of the European Space Agency (ESA), Jean-Jacques Dordain, during a meeting of the heads of international space agencies. Bolden said that, at that meeting, Dordain indicated that if the United States did not take the lead on a manned mission to Mars, he had great doubts that it would happen at all. International partnerships were also brought up in audience questions. A reporter from China Daily asked Bolden if we’ll see cooperation between the U.S. and China, citing their fictional partnership in the motion picture The Martian. Bolden’s response indicated that, although some generational change at the political level would be necessary, but that the U.S. already partnered with some Chinese agencies in the field of geodetics, an area of Earth science involving the movement and formation of Earth’s crustal regions. A representative from the U.S.-India Business Council asked about partnering with that foreign nation’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Bolden responded that NASA and ISRO had collaborated on sending India’s Mangalyaan spacecraft into a Mars orbit, the first time ever that a country was able to reach Mars on its first attempt.
Developing the private-public partnership with U.S. companies was another area which Bolden said could help to speed up the journey to Mars. Despite releasing matrices describing tech development and human survival needs, NASA hasn’t received much response from commercial interests looking to take the lead on research and development. Bolden stated that he felt there was both money and progress to be made by a company seeking to develop a replacement for the International Space Station, which has a finite service life. Experiments on the ISS or a replacement would be crucial for determining human safety in long-duration spaceflight. “Who is willing to make the corporate investment that says ‘If we depend on NASA, we’re not going to get this done.’”
The day’s presentation hit a couple of emotional notes for Bolden as well, especially on the topic of his granddaughters and the what the future might look like for their generation, which Bolden called the “space generation” not just for the places which they’ll visit but also for how the generation will see its role in the universe. “I tell my granddaughters about the journey to Mars and they ask, ‘Why stop there?’” Much later, Bolden said that he believed his granddaughters will “view their kids living and working on Mars as a fact of life.” Another poignant moment occurred when Bolden mentioned a discussion with middle school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the first U.S. civilian chosen for a space mission and a victim of the 1986 Challenger explosion. Bolden recalled how she felt that teaching allowed her to touch the future. “We’re at a teachable moment when it comes to the future of space exploration. The question is, what are we going to do with it?”