A blurred vision, but a persistent goal
by Jeff Foust
|“The message from our nation’s leaders today is simple and straightforward: keep doing what you’re doing to keep the United States the world leader in space,” Bolden said of the 2014 budget.|
That budget included, among other things, full funding for the Space Launch System ($1.6 billion) and Orion spacecraft ($1.2 billion). Science programs, from the James Webb Space Telescope to planetary science, got effectively their full request or even more. Some programs, though, fell short: commercial crew got $696 million, short of the $821 million requested, with $171 million of that $696 million held back until NASA performs a cost-benefit analysis of the program. Space technology saw its budget cut by nearly a quarter from its request of $742.6 million.
However, people in both government and industry spent Tuesday praising the budget. “This is a big win,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, lauding the funding for both SLS and commercial crew programs. “The message from our nation’s leaders today is simple and straightforward: keep doing what you’re doing to keep the United States the world leader in space,” NASA administration Charles Bolden said in a statement to agency employees.
What people didn’t spent Tuesday doing, by and large, was reflecting on that day’s anniversary. Ten years earlier—January 14, 2004—President George W. Bush went to NASA Headquarters in Washington to deliver a speech outlining the nation’s new space exploration policy, an initiative that became known as the Vision for Space Exploration (see “Looking beyond vision”, The Space Review, January 19, 2004). In his speech, Bush called for the completing of the International Space Station (ISS) and retiring the Space Shuttle by 2010, followed by development of a Crew Exploration Vehicle and associated systems that would return humans to the Moon by 2020.
That anniversary went largely unnoticed by the space community and the mainstream media (beyond a brief article by National Journal that originally claimed NASA’s 2004 budget was $86 billion) because the Vision for Space Exploration itself has become largely forgotten. The Obama Administration famously junked that goal of returning humans to the Moon in 2010 as it sought to cancel NASA’s implementation of the Vision, Project Constellation. While Congress eventually preserved elements of Constellation in the form of Orion and SLS, it did not resuscitate the lunar return goal, leaving NASA to pursue the President’s new interim goal of a human mission to an asteroid by 2025 (now being implemented in the agency’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission.)
For all the changes between the Vision for Space Exploration and the Obama Administration’s current policy (which, nearly four years after its introduction, lacks a title like the Vision or, before it, the Space Exploration Initiative), there remains one constant between the two: the acceptance of Mars as the long-term goal of human space exploration. “With the experience and knowledge gained on the Moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond,” Bush said in his speech ten years ago. He set no timeline for such a mission, but Obama did in his speech in April 2010 at the Kennedy Space Center. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth,” he said. “And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”
|For all the changes between the Vision for Space Exploration and the Obama Administration’s current policy, there remains one constant between the two: the acceptance of Mars as the long-term goal of human space exploration.|
If there is general agreement, at least in policy circles, that Mars is the long-term destination for human space exploration (sometimes called the “ultimate” destination, although that term suggests there is no place else for humans to go in the solar system), it’s more difficult to determine the best way to get there. The 2013 update to the Global Exploration Roadmap (GER), a document developed by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, endorsed Mars as a long-term destination for human missions and tried to incorporate both near Earth asteroid and lunar missions as stepping stones to that long-range goal. However, NASA has no official plans for human lunar missions for the foreseeable future, and many international partners are not enthusiastic about missions to asteroids.
Last week, a group of government and industry experts outlined an alternative approach. That group, which met during a three-day workshop last month in Washington, concluded “a human mission to Mars is both feasible and affordable assuming policy consistency among international space agencies and levels of funding consistent with pre-sequestration levels and modest increases annually in line with inflation,” according to a statement issued by Explore Mars, an advocacy group, on Tuesday. (That release coincided with the tenth anniversary of Bush’s speech, but the statement did not explicitly connect the two.)
Attendees of the workshop, which included a number of NASA officials as well as representatives of industry and academia, agreed on a set of core principles. Those principles conclude that human missions to Mars are both technically and fiscally feasible by the 2030s, and should be “the priority for human space flight over the next two to three decades.” It also endorsed the use of the ISS and robotic missions to prepare for human Mars exploration, and that “investments and activities in the human exploration of space must be prioritized in a manner that advances the objective of initial human missions to Mars beginning in the 2030s.”
Unlike the GER, though, the workshop did not outline a specific set of asteroid and/or lunar missions as steps towards human Mars missions. The workshop report did endorse an “incremental approach” towards such missions, making use of SLS and Orion for a Mars “free-return” mission in the next decade (a concept apparently similar to plans by Inspiration Mars for a crewed Mars flyby mission) and a “transitional deep-space facility in the early 2020s.” The report does note that the working group plans to continue its study of potential “mission pathways” later this year.
The emphasis of the workshop was on an “affordable” Mars exploration approach, and the attendees defined an affordable program as “a strategy that enables success within a budget and timeframe justified by the importance of mission goals.” To achieve that, the workshop recommended an incremental approach that reused hardware developed along the way, as well as alternative contracting and management approaches that could streamline such a program.
However, the report also acknowledged the need for somewhat more, and steadier, funding. “Space agency budgets should at least keep pace with a realistic measure of inflation,” the workshop summary stated. “Currently NASA’s budget is inadequate to support its programs. Current flat budgets are not realistic and result in reduced buying power over time. Modest increases will be necessary to achieve adequate support of this and other NASA priorities.
|“We can explore Mars without a major increase in funding so long as we are able to maintain a consistent policy and build strong partnerships,” Carberry said.|
That could prove to be the biggest challenge for any long-term human space exploration program, beyond technical issues and the selection of interim goals. When President Bush rolled out the Vision for Space Exploration ten years ago, the administration also released a long-term NASA budget projection that became known as the “sand chart” for its color-coded layers representing various agency programs. It was an unusually forward-looking estimate, given than even the five-year projections included in annual budget requests are typically taken with a grain or two—or a whole shaker—of salt.
That projection, which assumed only inflationary growth in NASA’s budget beyond 2009, assumed NASA’s budget would rise to about $20 billion in fiscal year 2014, with about a third of it devoted to exploration programs. In reality, NASA will be spending not quite a quarter of its $17.65-billion budget on exploration programs—and that budget, as noted above, has been widely praised by the space community as being better than expected.
“We can explore Mars without a major increase in funding so long as we are able to maintain a consistent policy and build strong partnerships,” said Explore Mars executive director Chris Carberry in the announcement of the workshop summary. “If we are steadfast and united in the cause, we will have the technology and the capability to make Mars a part of our human story.”
As the Vision for Space Exploration fades from view, a decade after its introduction, it leave behind that long-term goal of Mars as a destination for human space exploration. It also, though, leaves behind a cautionary tale of the difficulty of trying to sustain a space exploration program across multiple Congresses and Presidential administrations, a challenge as large today as it was in January 2004.