NASA director admits it can’t afford to send crew to Mars

14 Jul 2017

Image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock

Is Mars too distant a dream for NASA?

Recent comments made by NASA’s head of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, appear to show that the space agency simply can’t afford to land astronauts on Mars anytime soon.

If indeed true, it would be a staggering blow for space exploration in the coming decades and contrary to NASA’s plans to land a crew on Mars sometime in the 2030s.

Future Human

According to Ars Technica, the admission was made by Gerstenmaier at a recent conference of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics.

In his address, Gerstenmaier explained that, going by NASA’s budget allocated to it by the US government, it is simply unfeasible to launch a crew to the Red Planet.

“I can’t put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is … at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2pc increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars,” he said.

“And that entry, descent and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.”

More expensive than planned

While not citing what exactly has caused such monetary constraint, it would appear to be linked to NASA’s planned launch and delivery components – the Space Launch System and Orion capsule – which were recently shown to cost far more per launch than the space agency is comfortable with, at a staggering $1bn.

These latest comments by Gerstenmaier are also somewhat contradictory with those made by NASA’s current acting administrator, Robert M Lightfoot Jr, who recently spoke with about NASA’s future space exploration.

At the time, Lightfoot said he found that US president Donald Trump was supportive of its goal to get humans to Mars, despite the $500m budget cut.

“[Donald Trump and Mike Pence] like the plan we’re on, they like what we’re trying to do, and they want to be part of it and help us get there,” he said.

Hope of lunar base?

Meanwhile, Gerstenmaier was more welcome to the idea of NASA contributing to the establishment of a lunar base.

“If we find out there’s water on the moon, and we want to do more extensive operations on the moon to go explore that, we have the ability with Deep Space Gateway to support an extensive moon surface programme,” he said, adding a dash of hope that it may one day find the resources to send humans to Mars.

Given recent developments, it would appear that private space companies are likely to play a key role in – if not shape – the future of space exploration.

In the last few months, SpaceX founder Elon Musk unveiled his Mars colony and spaceship plans, while Luxembourg has just enacted a law to allow greater freedoms to companies such as Planetary Resources to mine precious minerals and metals in space.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic