Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Congress Asks: Can NASA Really Get Astronauts to Mars?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Congress Asks: Can NASA Really Get Astronauts to Mars?

Article excerpt

The United States has some soul searching to do about its ambitions for space exploration. And it better do it before a new and potentially space-unfriendly administration takes over the White House next year.

That was the gist of Wednesday's hearing hosted by the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, where members questioned NASA's direction and pushed for a concrete plan either for sending humans to Mars, an exceptionally expensive and technically challenging endeavor, or for exploring the Moon, a more affordable option.

"We have continual debate as to whether our goal should be the Moon, Mars or both," said Tom Young, a former NASA director who testified at the hearing. "It is clear that we cannot do both and there is a need to focus all attention, capabilities, and resources upon one option."

The public seems more excited by a human mission to Mars, which NASA says it could launch in the 2030s. But experts say NASA lacks a clear plan for how to pull that off.

NASA has too little money, no roadmap of milestones, no clear goals, no details about the technology that needs to be developed to get humans to the surface of Mars or to the moon, and to stay there, complained committee members and some of the expert witnesses.

"We pretend that we are on a '#JourneytoMars,' but in fact, possess neither the technology nor the economic resources necessary to undertake a human Mars mission now or within the foreseeable future," testified Paul Spudis, senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a Texas-based space research institution.

Dr. Spudis argued that the country is missing an opportunity to explore the Moon, which is closer, cheaper, and is currently a target for exploration for Europe, India, Russia, and China.

NASA dropped its plans to explore the Moon in 2010, deciding instead to focus on asteroid exploration as a precursor to a mission to Mars. In 2015, the agency announced a $1.25 billion plan to send a solar-powered robot to an asteroid in 2020 to pluck a boulder off its surface, drop it in orbit around the Moon, and then send astronauts aboard a spacecraft called Orion, in development now, to the space rock in order to explore it. …

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