So, When Do We Land On Mars?

07/20/2009 10:06 AM |

“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.

One Comment

  • Bravo, Mr. Bonislawski, for a solid take on the issue. I agree that the U.S. government doesn’t have, or rather won’t allocate sufficient funds to do a manned Mars mission any time soon but they shouldn’t have to. Seems to me that with modern telecommunications we could allow just about anybody who wants to to send materiel to Mars to wait in a parking orbit for use by humans there.

    Why does that matter? Because shipping just cargo is much cheaper per pound that shipping everything in one vessel, especially if you can afford to use a slower path. MUCH cheaper.

    Afaic, NASA should announce that if you can meet certain specs and can get your stuff there for Marsnauts to use, they’ll use it. That being done, we should see no shortage of states, companies and just plain old enthusiasts boosting their signature goods for use by Our Proud Mars Heroes. It won’t be the arrogant ones (NY, California, etc.) who already get plenty of publicity. It’ll the insecure ones. The ones who have decent revenues and whose state legislatures will be delighted to say “we’re just as good as you are and we’ll prove it!” North Carolina will subcontract to Research Triangle firms to ship local blueberries and clothes made of their cotton. Wisconsin will ship cheese. San Antonio will ship, I dunno, barbeque.

    But the point is, with payloads that can be as small as five or ten pounds and the ability to boost fast and travel slow (both save TONS of fuel per pound and cut rocket size waaay down), technology is more than good enough to allow this kind of thing right now.

    And the beauty part? Managed well, it’ll cost NASA *maybe* ten cents on the dollar to doing it themselves.