An annual report from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) has called into question whether NASA will be capable of pulling of its Journey to Mars in the 2030s.
In October 2015, NASA released a detailed outline of its Mars ambitions in a report called “NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.”
“Unfortunately, the level of detail in the report…does not really validate whether NASA would be capable of achieving such an ambitious objective in a reasonable time period, with realistically attainable technologies, and with budgetary requirements that are consistent with the current economic environment,” the ASAP writes.
NASA’s current Journey to Mars plan consists of three stages: Earth Reliant, Proving Ground, and Earth Independent. The first phase focuses on missions lasting six to 12 months aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where a return flight to Earth is capable within hours. The second phase focuses on pulling off complex operations that would take place in a deep-space environment. These missions are expected to last between one and 12 months and take place in cislunar space, with return trips lasting days. The final phase aims to get humans within Mars’ vicinity, including the planet’s moons and eventually its surface. These missions will last from two to three years, with return times measured in months.
“Although the document does identify a few specific technologies that will be needed to accomplish the overall mission, including Solar Electric Propulsion and a Deep Space Habitat, it lacks a top-level architecture and/or design reference missions,” the ASAP writes. “Without these elements, 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.”
The ASAP goes on to write that when questioned about specific plans, NASA leadership 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. They may also be concerned that spelling out a particular plan for reaching Mars today would somehow subject it to criticism by future administrations.”
Further, NASA’s indication that it will not take a leadership role in human missions to the lunar surface raises questions for the ASAP, which states that no other countries have stepped up to take NASA’s place. “It is unclear how NASA will develop low-gravity surface experience and technology without lunar surface e experience,” ASAP writes.
The panel points out that with NASA’s existing budget—the report was written prior to the enactment of the fiscal year 2016 budget—Proving Ground and Earth Independent activities likely won’t be capable until the end of ISS operations. Those are slated to conclude 2024. However, some have suggested extending operations until 2028.
“While there may be benefits from such a plan, unless NASA were to be given a large increase in its appropriations, it is possible that continuing the ISS past 2024 may delay the Journey to Mars due to limited funding.”