Page 2 of 3“We have everything we need to launch a mission to Mars in the next 10 to 15 years,” says Chris Carberry, executive director of the Mars Society, a non-profit organization that advocates exploration of the planet. “We’re more prepared now to go to Mars than we were to go to the moon when Kennedy announced it in the ’60s.”
Unlike the ’60s, though, which NASA spent monomaniacally focused on getting to the moon, past decades have seen the agency juggling any number of initiatives — the Hubble telescope, the shuttle program, toilet rights negotiations on the International Space Station (seriously!) — many of which were, at most, only tangentially related to going to Mars. The 2009 federal budget appropriated $17.8 billion to NASA, of which about $3 billion was directed to the Constellation program. The rest of the funding went to things like shuttle missions, space station maintenance and basic scientific research.
As things stand, spending on Constellation is scheduled to expand dramatically in 2011 after the space shuttle is decommissioned, freeing up several billion dollars a year in funds. Spending will go up again in 2016 after the space station is taken out of orbit, freeing still more money for the program. By 2025, NASA’s Exploration Systems mission directorate is projected to account for 50 percent of the agency’s budget, with 90 percent of that 50 percent being directed to Constellation.
All of which is the tedious way of saying that at the moment we aren’t spending nearly enough to fund the project, but we will be — sometime — maybe. Or, you know, maybe not. You’d never want to stake your life on a 15-year federal budget projection. Things can happen. For instance — while the shuttle program is almost certainly headed for extinction (although shuttle-state senator Bill Nelson, D-FL, has been pushing to have the decommission deadline relaxed somewhat), the space station is less of a sure thing. Its demise is officially slated for the middle of the next decade, but, notes the Washington Post, NASA is also analyzing the costs involved in keeping it operational through the late 2020s. After all, you don’t disappear a multi-decade, $100 billion investment overnight (unless, of course, you work on Wall Street. Thanks again guys!). And to be honest, it does seem weirdly counterproductive (to the under-informed layman, at any rate) to be bringing the thing down just as we’re about to finally finish building it.
NASA, though, is no stranger to abandoned initiatives and shifts in direction (here’s looking at you, Skylab B). Neither, for that matter, are Congress or the executive branch. Present budget projections look reasonably favorable regarding Constellation, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stay that way.