Last month US President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that further focused NASA’s continuing goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. Laying out in detail the steps the agency will take to reach this goal, it was welcomed by those at NASA, who have been itching to visit the Red Planet as quickly as possible.
“We’re all very much looking forward, as directed by your new NASA bill, we’re excited about the missions to Mars in the 2030s,” the brilliant Commander Peggy Whitson, who yesterday broke the US cumulative space record, told Trump in a live streamed video call from the International Space Station. “We are absolutely ready to go to Mars. It’s going to be a fantastic journey getting up there and very exciting times. All of us would be happy to go.”
But yesterday during the conversation with Whitson, Trump made comments that suggest he’s hoping to move that target forward significantly. First, he asked the Commander how quickly she thought humans would get to Mars, to which she reiterated the 2030s goal and explained some of the challenges associated with getting to Earth’s nearest planetary neighbour.
“Well we want to do it during my first term,” Trump then responded, to laughs from his daughter Ivanka, who also was in attendance, “or at worst during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”
This, naturally, was jumped on by the left-wing press as the latest way to lambast Trump, but is it possible that it could be achievable?
Well, if we’re talking about first term – no, unfortunately not. NASA is still in the process of building its Space Launch System, the rocket that will be capable of manned missions to Mars, and the first test flight is not due until next year. There are also a huge number of issues that remain unresolved – not least that unless a solution to the vast amounts of radiation the astronauts would be exposed to is developed, there’s a good chance they could arrive at Mars with little clue about why they were there.
Add the fact that a flight to Mars would take between 150 and 300 days depending on planetary alignment and fuel usage, and a goal of just three years and nine months to arrive is simply not achievable.
Seven years and nine months – ie at the end of Trump’s second term – however is considerably more plausible, albeit still very ambitious. But Trump is nothing if not ambitious, and if he’s prepared to provide the support to make it happen, it really could be pulled off.
Mars by 2025?
If Trump were to formally move forward the Mars goal, he’d likely be looking at right at the end of his third term, so 2025. Conversely, his NASA bill has a tentative date of 2033: eight years later, meaning he’d effectively be halving the time left before humans landed on the Red Planet.
But there’s a lot to do. Only so much can be determined in low-Earth orbit – phase one of NASA’s work toward the Red Planet – and from next year NASA plans to embark on phase two of its Journey to Mars, using cis-Lunar space to test humans’ ability to live without reliance on Earth. That would have to be sped up – meaning more missions more quickly – in order to move to the third and final phase, and ultimately a manned trip to Mars.
However, even on the longer target of 2033, the mission is going to require vast funds and international support, as Whitson explained during her video stream.
“Unfortunately spaceflight takes a lot of time and money, so getting there will require some international cooperation to get it to be a planet-wide approach in order to make it successful, just because it is a very expensive endeavour,” she said. “But it is so worthwhile doing.”
The funding, in particular, is going to be a serious challenge. Trump’s 2018 budget proposal sees NASA escaping the gouging cuts faced by many other departments, but it is set to lose 1% of its budget. However, its remit will be more tightly focused on the Mars mission, with education and Earth observation taking the damage.
But while that is relatively promising for fans of a manned Mars mission, if Trump is going to follow in John F Kennedy’s footsteps and make a short-term, big-goal space project a central morale booster, he’s going to have to follow Kennedy’s approach to funding the space agency. And that means adding far more money to NASA’s pot – potentially at least at the levels of Kennedy’s NASA, which would be equivalent to more than twice the current NASA budget.
For some the answer may lie in the commercial space industry, which is seeing dramatic growth, and is set to be dominated by US companies. And Trump’s NASA bill continues this support, showing there is certainly a strong business case to be had in transitioning low-Earth orbit activities to private companies. But while the commercial space industry is undoubtedly going to provide massive incomes in the future, in general it is not currently a profitable field, and so is unlikely to be a major source of financial gain for NASA within the time Trump would need.
Whatever you think of Trump, it’s clear that he’s a fan of space, and as part of the generation that watched the Moon landing live on black and white televisions, it’s no surprise. Now he’s at the helm, it seems he wants to ensure that next great moment in US space-faring is under his command. I probably would too if I were president.
But no matter how enthusiastic he is about the space agency and its plans, if he wants to make it happen, he’s going to need to put a lot more money behind NASA. Will alone will not speed up the journey to Mars, so if Trump is serious we should see a big uptick in the NASA budget next time around.