A bill to authorize and fund NASA for a mission to Mars by 2033 is now sitting on President Donald Trump’s desk.
If Trump signs the bill, $19.5 billion would fund deep space human exploration. Much of the money would go towards a manned mission to Mars. NASA plans to accelerate plans to put U.S. astronauts to lunar orbit in 2019 and send a crewed mission to Mars in 16 years.
The bill passed both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate with near-unanimous support. The entire program will not result in significant increases in the NASA budget, but will be paid for by cutting spending on earth sciences, global warming research and heliophysics.
Longtime advocates of a Mars mission however are worried the plan’s long-term horizon may prevent it from being implemented.
“The NASA authorization bill is ok as far as it goes, but it is not enough,” Dr. Robert Zubrin, who helped design plans for NASA’s manned mission to Mars and wrote the “The Case For Mars,” told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “What is needed is a presidential commitment to a clear goal within the prospective 8 years of the current administration.”
Trump requested NASA plan to return U.S. astronauts to the lunar surface potentially by 2020 and go onto Mars soon after, according to leaked internal documents. The documents say Trump wants NASA to launch a “rapid and affordable” lunar mission to the moon by 2020, build privately operated space stations and assist “the large-scale economic development of space.”
“The best decision would be humans to Mars within 8 years,” Zubrin said.
“The second best would be a return to the Moon within 8 years, using a hardware set designed form commonality with Mars, thereby enabling human Mars missions to begin in parallel with continued lunar exploration shortly thereafter. Sending people to hang out in ‘cis lunar space’ is pointless, except as an activity designed to spend money.”
The bill would send astronauts on several missions to orbit the moon to test technology in the 2020s, which are intended to create the expertise necessary for a manned mission to Mars.
Trump’s Mars and Moon missions will require the giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket currently being debated in Congress.
“The program needs to be destination driven, not “technology driven,” which is the same thing as constituency driven,” Zubrin continued. “The first priority must be determination of a clear, near term, real, defensible goal. Technology development must serve that goal, not the reverse. NASA needs to spend money in order to do things, not do things in order to spend money.”
Trump vowed to “unlock the mysteries of space” in his inaugural address, lending credence to reports he discussed sending humans to Mars in a private meeting with billionaire Elon Musk. During a speech to the Joint Session of Congress in late February, Trump said, “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.” Vice President Mike Pence met with Apollo 11 astronaut and Mars mission advocate Buzz Aldrin late last week to talk about the future of the U.S. space program.
Trump has yet to name a NASA director to implement his vision for space, but leaked documents state Oklahoma Republic Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot, is the top contender.
The president may free up money for his space plans by slashing the more than $2 billion NASA spends on its Earth Science Mission Directorate, which covers global warming science, and divert that money towards space exploration.
Former President Barack Obama tried for years to eliminate the SLS and Orion programs, but Congress rescued the rocket. Obama took money from space exploration programs to fund Earth science programs.
Experts have long suspected Trump’s space agenda will fund exploration with robotic probes and, later, sending humans to Mars with money diverted from NASA’s global warming science programs. Another billionaire space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, thinks Trump could double NASA’s budget.
The U.S. is better prepared to visit Mars than it was to visit the moon in the 1960s, according to a study by NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The total cost of current plans to send Americans to Mars comes out to roughly $35 billion spent by 2025 to arrive in 2030.
Additional money for Mars exploration could be diverted from NASA’s troubled Asteroid Redirect Mission, which was heavily supported by Obama.
“A number of prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill think that NASA should not be involved to the degree that it is in Earth science,” Jeff Foust, a senior writer at the trade publication SpaceNews, told Space.com. “I would certainly expect to see some sort of development in terms of potential reduction to NASA’s Earth science program.”
Obama repeatedly tried to slash space exploration funding and redirect it to Earth science programs, which include climate modeling initiatives designed to measure global warming. Obama increased NASA’s budget for environmental programs by 63 percent at the expense of its exploration budget.
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