Sending human astronauts to Mars is a dream shared by many, but there are still challenges to overcome and the question of just how to accomplish it is a subject of intense debate. Some supporters advocate sending a mission directly to Mars, while others think that returning to the Moon first, for potentially beneficial training, is the way to go. Indeed, former astronaut James Lovell, who flew on two trips to the Moon, has also called for a return to the Moon first. NASA itself has stated its desire to send a crewed mission to a nearby asteroid first, instead of the Moon, going a bit farther into space than the Moon as its idea of preparation for the much longer journey to Mars. A major problem has been that NASA has still not set a firm timetable for such a mission; it wants to go to Mars, but the steps to achieving that goal are still unclear.
Now, the House Appropriations Committee has spoken on the issue in a new report and has made changes in the budget for fiscal year 2017, calling for NASA to abandon its asteroid idea and send astronauts back to the Moon first, before going to Mars.
The draft report from the committee was released May 23, with the spending bill being taken up yesterday. The bill provides $19.508 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2017, with strong support for planetary science. $1.846 billion is allocated to planetary science, which is $327 million more than NASA’s request. This is also $490 million above the level in a companion bill which was approved by Senate appropriators last month. While planetary science overall continues to be a priority, the proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) has been axed. ARM would retrieve a boulder-sized sample from a nearby asteroid and place in orbit around the Moon for further study. A robotic spacecraft would pick up the boulder from a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA), place it in lunar orbit, and then the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion would be used to take astronauts to the asteroid.
But the new direction that the House wants NASA to go now is pretty self-evident. Going to an asteroid would be a waste of time, while returning to the Moon would better allow NASA to test technologies which will be crucial for a mission to Mars. This would also be preferable to launching a mission straight to Mars instead, given the complexity of such an endeavor. Needless to say, returning to the Moon, perhaps establishing a long-awaited base there, and then going to Mars would be a lot more compelling to most people than plucking a rock off an asteroid.
As also outlined in the report, “Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill 2017” (pg. 61):
“Mission to Mars. While the Committee recognizes the benefits of some of the technology that is under development as part of the asteroid redirect and retrieval missions, namely advanced propulsion technology research, asteroid deflection, and grappling technologies, the Committee believes that neither a robotic nor a crewed mission to an asteroid appreciably contribute to the over-arching mission to Mars. Further, the long-term costs of launching a robotic craft to the asteroid, followed by a crewed mission, are unknown and will divert scarce resources away from developing technology and equipment necessary for missions to Mars, namely deep space habitats, accessing and utilizing space resources, and developing entry, descent, landing, and ascent technologies.”
Toward that end, no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid. Instead, NASA is encouraged to develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.
Further, the Committee is supportive of NASA’s efforts to use the International Space Station (ISS) to conduct research necessary to enable long-term human spaceflight, or ”Earth-reliant” technology development; cis-lunar space activities, or ”proving ground” efforts such as Orion flights on SLS in the vicinity of the Moon, and deployment and testing of deep space habitation modules; and finally, NASA’s ”Earth independent” activities which include using cis-lunar space as a staging area, mapping potential human exploration zones, and caching samples on Mars as part of the Mars Rover 2020 mission.
SLS and Orion, which NASA wants to use to return to the Moon or go to Mars, also received an increase in funding, and an additional $30 million has been directed to the Discovery program, for lower-cost planetary missions. The House directs NASA to select two proposals every four years.
The increase in funding for planetary science would go primarily toward the Europa mission. The bill allocates $260 million toward the mission, which is still in the early planning stages. Such a mission to this moon of Jupiter, which has a subsurface ocean beneath the surface ice crust, is understandably more exciting than retrieving a chunk of rock. The mission is supposed to launch sometime in the 2020s, where a spacecraft orbiting Jupiter would make 45 close flybys of Europa to study its surface and interior in unprecedented detail, including taking many high-resolution images and probing the subsurface with ice-penetrating radar. A magnetometer would also study the moon’s magnetic field which would allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean. The committee is recommending the orbiter to be launched in 2022 and a small lander in 2024. Another recent report notes that the moon’s ocean may be even more potentially habitable than first thought, further “wetting[sic] the appetite” for those who want to explore this fascinating moon.
As well as providing no funding for ARM, the bill also decreases funding for Earth Science to $1.69 billion, which is $342 million below NASA’s request and $294 million below the level in the Senate bill.
No specific funding level was allocated yet for NASA’s commercial crew program, although NASA had requested $1.18 billion.
It should also be noted that ARM is completely separate from the upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission, to be launched in September 2016, where a robotic spacecraft will obtain a sample from an asteroid and return it to Earth in 2023.
NASA has faced a lot of criticism for its “Journey to Mars” program, which, while sounding compelling, still hasn’t provided a firm timetable for such an ambitious mission. The Space Launch System and Orion are being developed, but without a specific timetable, they have nowhere to go, yet. Although not backed by NASA administrator Charles Bolden, the back-to-the Moon-first approach has been called common sense by various industry leaders. There has also been growing debate over whether the first astronauts should land on Mars, land on one of its moons, or simply orbit. As part of NASA’s plans, Lockheed Martin has also just announced its goal of establishing an orbiting Mars base called Mars Base Camp, by 2028.
The new directive from the House stands in contrast to President Obama’s statement in 2010 that there was no need for NASA to return to the Moon: “We’ve been there before … there’s a lot more space to explore.”
If the bill is signed into law, it will begin a new chapter in space exploration, where the Moon once again becomes a stepping stone to the ultimate destination: Mars. It was also on this day in 1961 when President Kennedy announced the goal of “Landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Now it seems that we may finally be going back.
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