Should NASA go all-in on Mars?

In a report released this week, the National Research Council has examined NASA's current trajectory for human spaceflight.  Their conclusion?  We're not on the right track.

The NRC, a branch of the National Academies, has spent more than $3 million over the last eighteen months on a congressionally-mandated review of America's manned space program.  Their results, while perhaps not surprising, are a sobering appraisal of NASA's priorities.

 If NASA wants to put people here, it needs to get on its high horse.  (Image credit: NASA)

If NASA wants to put people here, it needs to get on its high horse.  (Image credit: NASA)

This report is pretty exhaustive.  To start off, it spends more than forty pages asking "Why do we go?".  Analyzing NASA spending and research returns over the past few decades, the report concludes that the technical benefits reaped are not worth the money expended.  But, it continues, when the inspirational value of space exploration is included, the cost becomes acceptable.  The panel identified both benefits from inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers, as well as the international prestige and good will the United States receives from its space accomplishments.

Mindful that space exploration does not provide sufficient innovational reward alone, the NRC recommends that NASA maximize the inspirational value by aspiring to the grandest technically-feasible goal: landing humans on Mars.  With this idea in mind, the report goes on to analyze various components of the current NASA strategy. 

Overarching across the entire analysis is the question of the agency's budget.  Space travel is expensive; deep space travel is likely even more expensive.  In light of the $150 billion cost of the Apollo Moon-landing program and the $170 billion spent on the International Space Station, the NRC assumes NASA will need hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of decades to get to Mars.  With the agency itself projecting a flat (or, at best, inflation-controlled) budget for the foreseeable future, that money simply is not there.  The report suggests yearly increases of about 5% are necessary to fund the technologies needed to get to the Red Planet.

With funds at a premium, the NRC is highly critical of NASA taking on projects which don't develop the skills and technologies necessary for getting to Mars.  Their biggest target is one of the most contentious programs out there today: asteroid capture.  Touted by the president and senior agency officials as the next progression of our manned space program, many others have criticized the mission as a poor value.  The basic idea is to use a robotic spacecraft to redirect a small asteroid into orbit about the Moon.  Then, riding aboard the upcoming Orion space capsule, astronauts would land on the asteroid and study it for up to two weeks before returning home.  A neat idea, but one that many have suggested is more appropriate for a robot than a human crew.

The ultimate question here is whether the United States wants to be a space-faring nation.  Human spaceflight has always been a go-big-or-go-home affair.  And, for a country nearly fifty years removed from landing on the Moon, cozying up to an asteroid isn't going big, it's grasping in the dark for something to cling to.  Let's really, seriously go for Mars or let's take that money and spend it somewhere else.  For the cost of the trip, we could send fifty Curiosity-class rovers across the solar system.

There is some good news here, though.  The United States and Russia are no longer the only nations capable of putting humans into space.  China can do it.  Soon, India will be able to, as well.  So, let's not give up hope on seeing footprints in red dust.  I'll wager that citizens of the planet Earth will set foot on the surface of Mars sooner than we might think.  Just perhaps not citizens of America.