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.