Our future in space?

Before my laptop battery dies — Houston, we have a problem — let me cross-post my story on NASA and Mars. I’m at the H2M summit at GWU where NASA boss Gen. Charles Bolden is speaking, and I’m hoping we can communicate today entirely with acronyms and jargon. Bolden is talking about commercial crew, the SLS, Orion, a 70-metric-ton vehicle, a 130-ton vehicle, and so on. His message: We need to fully fund the commercial crew program so that the private sector can develop the taxi to low earth orbit and NASA can focus on the harder stuff, like going to Mars. Bolden said he realizes some people want to go to Mars right now, but he says we’re not quite there yet:

“I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready. I don’t have the capability to do it. NASA doesn’t have the capability to do that right now. But we’re on a path to be able to do it in the 2030s.”

But, he warned, if we don’t fund commercial crew “we will not get to Mars in our lifetimes.”

Here’s my story advancing this conference.

Is NASA going to send astronauts to Mars?

That’s the agency’s stated goal, though there’s no mission yet, no program per se, certainly no budget (it would probably give lawmakers the jitters), and at the moment NASA doesn’t have the technology to land astronauts safely and then bring them back to Earth. So humans-to-Mars is aspirational, with the tough logistical and political issues yet to be resolved.

Amplification of NASA’s long-term Mars strategy will probably come over the next three days as the agency’s top officials participate in a conference at George Washington University called the “Humans to Mars Summit,” or H2M. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is the keynoter; the conference will close Wednesday after a speech by Apollo 11 moon man Buzz Aldrin.

The Obama administration’s 2010 “National Space Policy of the United States of America” requires the NASA administrator to set “far-reaching exploration milestones,” including: “By 2025, begin crewed missions beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid. By the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.”

So, taken literally, the policy does not call for NASA to put astronauts on the surface of the fourth rock from the sun. They’d go to Mars, take a close look from orbit, perhaps rendezvous with one of the small Martian moons, and come zooming home.

That may seem like a long way to go without bothering to land, but landing on Mars is extraordinarily difficult. Mars has a very thin atmosphere, and without air, it’s hard to brake a spaceship coming in at 13,000 miles per hour. Getting to Mars would be relatively easy if you were allowed to crash into it. Surviving will cost you extra.

“Can we do it? Yes,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology, speaking in advance of the H2M conference. But he quickly added: “It depends on your level of risk. You can send people many places. It is a question of risk.”

And we need new technology, he said. Finding ways to protect astronauts from deadly radiation in space is a major challenge. So is avoiding those crash landings: “We need better ways to slow down.”

NASA succeeded last summer in landing the Curiosity rover within 1.5 miles of its target on Mars after a 350-million-mile journey. The entry and descent used a novel method that included using a 15-foot-diameter heat shield to slow down the craft, then a parachute, then chemical rockets. But landing a spaceship with astronauts would probably require a payload about 40 times heavier, Gazarik said.

“That was a metric ton. That was the size of a Mini-Cooper. Imagine if we had a larger spacecraft, if we had fuel and a rocket to get off the planet,” he said.

One possibility would be landing the fuel, the return rocket and the astronauts separately so that the payloads could be smaller. But that’s easier said than done.

“You got to land it all near the same place. It pushes on our ability to land accurately,” Gazarik said.

Top NASA officials have made clear that they see humans-to-Mars as the logical ambition for the agency. In response to a reporter’s request for clarification about the National Space Policy, an agency spokesman, Allard Beutel, said in an e-mail: “That’s the written policy, which we generally refer to as ‘going to Mars,’ but obviously we’re looking at landing on Mars in the coming years, not just orbiting it. And before that is an asteroid mission. So, we have a number of incremental steps and missions ahead of us that will get better defined as we prepare to go to Mars.”

There are private entrepreneurs who also want to send humans to Mars and who might be willing to accept far more risk than a program run by the U.S. civilian space agency. But physics is the same for private and public explorers alike.

No one knows how much a human mission to Mars would cost. But in a time of pinched budgets, it’s a big ask for the space agency. Even discussing potential costs could be problematic. The agency well remembers what happened in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush announced an ambitious space strategy that included a human landing on Mars. Somehow word got around that it would cost $400 billion. That was a figure of mysterious provenance and was hardly an official estimate. Nonetheless, Congress flinched, and the Bush 41 Mars mission soon evaporated.

Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars Inc., the nonprofit group behind the H2M conference, said he’s optimistic that NASA could pull off a manned mission to Mars if given the money: “If NASA was directed to do it and provided the resources, they could definitely do it. The question is whether we have the political will to do it. It’s more of a policy issue.”

The H2M conference is co-sponsored by GWU’s Space Policy Institute, perhaps the leading academic think tank with a focus on government efforts in space. And the program lists a bevy of corporate sponsors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and ATK.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | May 2, 2013