Does NASA Have What It Takes to Pull Off a Mars Mission? Not Yet, Says Scientist

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Interstellar killjoy scientists had a bummer warning for everyone who ever watched Apollo 13 and drew the NASA logo on a white T-shirt: We probably aren't going to Mars soon. And maybe for good reason.

No one said getting to the Red Planet is impossible. But according to John Sommerer, a space scientist who spent time on a panel reviewing NASA's human spaceflight programs, NASA doesn't currently have the budget or the discipline to pull it off.

Sommerer has said, "We could maybe get people to Mars in the next 50 years at the cost of half a trillion dollars," according to Rick Skwiot at Washington University in St. Louis. When Sommerer presented testimony last Wednesday at a House Subcommittee on Space hearing that referenced a 2014 report he worked on called Pathways to Exploration, he presented a bigger concern than cost:

"While sending humans to Mars, and returning them safely to the Earth, may be technically feasible, it is an extraordinarily challenging goal, from physiological, technical and programmatic standpoints," Sommerer said, according to Ars Technica

"Because of this extreme difficulty, it is only with unprecedented cumulative investment and, frankly, unprecedented discipline in development, testing, execution and leadership, that this enterprise is likely to be successful," he said. That testimony is the human spaceflight panel version of telling NASA shape the hell up.

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His words were harsh, especially in front of Congress, which signs off on NASA's budget every year. Considering the estimated $180 billion cost for space missions in the next two decades, they need to be stern. "What we do not have is a plan, strategy or architecture with sufficient detail that takes us from today to humans on the surface of Mars," said Tom Young, the former director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, according to Ars Technica.

To NASA's credit, it has already fired up the Space Launch System rocket, a massive tool to get to Mars, and had a successful unmanned flight with the Orion crew capsule. But going on those elements alone is like saying someone built a bicycle and it didn't break after a trip around the block, so biking from New York to Florida should be a cakewalk. If the plans from here on out aren't solid, maybe the mission needs reevaluating.

"It might be better to stop talking about Mars if there is no appetite in Congress and the Administration for higher human spaceflight budgets and more disciplined execution by NASA," Sommerer told Congress, according to a press release from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

The nerve-wracking part for NASA is the tight deadline. We'll enter a new presidency at the beginning of next year, and who knows if the winning candidate will be willing to throw Sommerer's estimated half-trillion dollars at a moonshot — or Mars-shot — mission into the great unknown.

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Fortunately for that kid in the homemade NASA T-shirt, we live in an era where private space agencies exist. And while their motivations are probably monetary — if you want to go to space, you still have to pay someone for the rocket — they mean great things for humanity as a whole. 

SpaceX, led by the moonshot king himself, Elon Musk, vows to colonize Mars. Other private companies, like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, have recently teamed up for asteroid-mining ventures, bringing industrialization into space — which, given how much money there is in space mining, would probably mean rapid expansion once the footholds are found.

Yes, NASA could get its act together and have a viable plan to get humanity onto the surface of Mars, skeptics be damned. But if it doesn't, we shouldn't lose hope for seeing human footprints on Martian soil in our lifetimes.

h/t Ars Technica