NASA's Not Ready to Go to Mars, Panel Finds

Vagueness and a tight budget could keep NASA mission grounded past 2030.

Jan 16 2016, 8:09pm

Image: NASA.

The new annual report from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an external advisory group that makes safety recommendations for NASA, strongly questions whether the space agency can safely live up to its timetable for a Mars mission in the 2030s.

Way back in March of last year, NASA administrator Charles Bolden claimed the agency's plans were "clear, affordable, and sustainable," but ASAP's report expresses its concerns that NASA's plans actually remain excessively unclear and thwarted by a pitiful budget.

NASA roughly outlined its plans for a manned Mars mission in an October report, which centered on a three-phase project that would see missions poking out ever farther into the space between Earth and its red neighbor before culminating in an actual landing. It sounds reasonable enough, but ASAP believes the hopeful document leaves far too many blanks to fill in if NASA plans to pull off this kind of feat in fewer than two decades.

ASAP's report recognizes that NASA realizes it needs to develop technologies for things like Solar Electric Propulsion and Deep Space Habitats before we can pay Mars a visit, for instance, but notes that the October report "lacks a top-level architecture and/or design reference mission." These are all big elements for such a venture, and without them ASAP believes "it will be difficult to properly scope and sequence the needed technology development efforts to ensure that they will be available at the appropriate time."

"When questioned about the lack of a specific mission plan," ASAP goes on to say, "senior NASA leaders have replied that it is too early for such plans. They are reluctant to design vehicles or missions with today's technologies, since it is hoped that improvements can be made in the next 20 years that would radically change how such systems could be built."

That sounds optimistic and all, and it's true that NASA is already hunting down promising landing sites and working hard to develop some form of real-life space hibernation. Folks outside NASA are even getting involved in helpful efforts, as in the case of the University of Arizona's Martian greenhouse project. But ASAP suggests that NASA's vague guesstimates won't do much to sway an American political environment that's not as committed to the space program as it used to be.

"The ASAP believes that a well-designed mission, with anticipated rewards that are expected to outweigh the risks, would go a long way toward gaining the needed support from future administrations, the Congress, and the general public."

That's important, since ASAP notes that NASA's current budget for its Exploration Systems Development division is essentially crap.

Image: ASAP

"This distribution of resources reflects one more typically observed in 'level-of-effort' programs rather than a budget constructed to achieve the needed design efforts of a major program's discrete and integrated requirements," the report says.

The panel also suggests that NASA might be attempting too giant a leap with a Mars mission so soon. Perhaps, it says, "NASA should be working on a different mission." Why not, it suggests, take a few trips to the moon again to get some additional insights into a low-gravity surface experience? The problem is that NASA isn't interested in taking on a leadership role while numerous other countries are in the process trying to take their own hikes across the Sea of Tranquility.

And then there's the "problem" of the International Space Station, which ASAP notes "presumably" gets billions of dollars in funding each year that could be used for exploring space beyond the moon. Both NASA managers and "industry partners" have expressed interest in continuing to operate the station until 2028 or beyond, ASAP notes, and "unless NASA were to be given a large increase in its appropriations, it is possible that continuing the ISS past 2024 may delay the Journey to Mars due to limited funding."

That's all to say nothing of the numerous other problems ASAP found with NASA's other related projects, as in the case of the Orion rockets that'll likely be used in the trifold plan to get to Mars. A test in December 2014 revealed faults in the Orion spacecraft's heat shield design, for example, and NASA won't be able to test a new one until it sends up another test rocket in 2018 and, following that, a crewed mission in the 2020s.

The Orion spacecraft with its heat shield prior to its December 2014 test run. Image: ASAP.

"NASA's internal direction to the programs is to work to a 2021 EM-2 launch date, which has a schedule confidence level close to zero at requested funding levels," ASAP says in the report.

Ouch. In the wake of such criticisms, a 2030 trip to Mars increasingly looks like a 225 million-kilometer longshot. Even so, ASAP isn't without its own guarded optimism, as ASAP chair Joseph W. Dyer relates in the annual report's introductory letter.

"We continue to be impressed with how much the Agency accomplishes with relatively little," Dyer said.

In other words, perhaps—it could happen.