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.
“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.
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.