Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Mars Bar


Click the arrow to watch Administrator Bolden's address to the Human to Mars Summit. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was the featured speaker at the 2014 Human to Mars Summit this week hosted by Explore Mars.

Conspicuously absent from Bolden's remarks was any detailed discussion about why NASA should send people to Mars. He did mention in remarks that were not part of his prepared speech that he and Buzz Aldrin agree humanity must be an interplanetary species to survive the eventual death of the Sun in about six billion years.

Bolden displayed a graphic titled, “Human Exploration: NASA's Path to Mars.” It first appeared on March 27 at the House space subcommittee hearing on the Fiscal Year 2015 NASA budget, perhaps in an attempt to simplify for these members of Congress NASA's future for human spaceflight. Many of these members continue to falsely claim that NASA has no direction or path or “roadmap” or whatever rhetoric they choose. If nothing else, Bolden can now remind them that he provided them with a nice, simple, easily understood graphic — at least by anyone without pork between their ears. But they will ignore it as they ignored his warnings about underfunding commercial crew the last few years.

The graphic now has its own page on NASA's web site.


The “NASA's Path to Mars” graphic. Image source: NASA.

Bolden told the Explore Mars audience, “We want it indelibly emblazed in your brain.”

I searched the Explore Mars web site for a cogent argument that explained why NASA should prioritize sending humans to Mars.

At the bottom of their “About” page, their mission statement is “make humans a multi-planet species.” It then states:

Explore Mars was created to advance the goal of sending humans to Mars within the next two decades. To further that goal, Explore Mars conducts programs and technical challenges to stimulate the development and/or improvement of technologies that will make human Mars missions more efficient and feasible. In addition, to embed the idea of Mars as a habitable planet, Explore Mars challenges educators to use Mars in the classroom as a tool to teach standard STEM curricula.

Once again, the argument seems to be that humanity must establish a presence off-world to survive as a species.

True enough, but I'm not quite sure this resonates with enough urgency to justify making it a priority or the billions of dollars wasted on Space Launch System.

Called Senate Launch System by its critics, SLS was mandated by Congress in 2010 to protect Shuttle-era jobs in the districts and states of certain members of key congressional committees.

To this day, Congress has yet to tell NASA what to do with SLS.

A year ago, NASA proposed the Asteroid Initiative as a use for SLS. Members of Congress reacted with a yawn. Some called it “lackluster,” while others demanded an Apollo rerun to the Moon. In February, House Science Committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) held a hearing to propose that NASA send two people on a flyby of Mars and Venus in 2021. Just what they are supposed to do went unsaid, nor did he explain how they would survive the lethal doses of radiation, nor did he say how he would pay for it. Earlier this month, Smith's committee produced a NASA authorization bill that requires NASA to study his flyby, although it didn't say how NASA is supposed to pay for that either.

NASA's Path to Mars strikes me as a political consensus that tries to balance legitimate needs to establish a permanent commercial foothold in low Earth orbit with the demands of politicians that NASA pursue an Apollo-style program without Apollo-style funding.

Path to Mars also seems to attempt to placate the dreamers who want a boldly going cislunar and translunar human spaceflight program, without acknowledging the political reality that Congress will never fund it. The fleet of four SLS rockets pointed at Mars appears intended to create the impression that SLS is the beginning of Starfleet.

The reality is that NASA is a federal program, and as such relies upon Congress for authorization and funding. Contrary to popular myth, the President has little influence on the course of events. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) reminded us of that earlier this month, when she said that President Obama's Fiscal Year 2015 NASA budget was“well intentioned, but I consider it advisory” and thus will be ignored by her Senate Appropriations Committee.

I have no evidence to support this, but I kinda suspect that NASA leadership engages in the polite fiction of using SLS for a Mars human spaceflight program to placate Congress so that commercial spaceflight can advance to the point that Congress is irrelevant. Once private companies launch customers to private space stations, no one will need taxpayer dollars from Congress to reach low Earth orbit.

That point may be closer than Congressional porkers suspect.

Next week on April 30 in Las Vegas, Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace will hold a joint media event to promote CST-100 commercial crew flights to Bigelow expandable habitats.

SpaceX tested reusable first stage technology in the last week, attempting to steer a launched stage to a landing target in the Atlantic Ocean, while also testing its Falcon 9R at their site in McGregor, Texas. In 2015, SpaceX will launch its Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A, which founder Elon Musk hopes will one day lead to a Mars colonial transport.

In a world where private entrepreneurs are about to surpass the capabilities of a sclerotic government space program, the need for SLS becomes increasingly questionable.

There's more than one path to Mars.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that. I asked the question at the 15 minute point about giving SpaceX additional funding to be able to fly not just their own crews to LEO in 2015 but NASA crews to the ISS. Bolden responded Space wasn't selected yet as the provider. OK, then also provide Boeing the same funding they can also reach that same short time frame, or perhaps by 2016.

    Bob Clark

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