Thursday, December 3, 2015

MARS: The Next Frontier - NASA Wants To Reach Mars With A Little Help From Its Friends!

Source: NASA

December 3, 2015 -  MARS - In the middle of the Cold War scramble to best the Soviets in space, NASA received all the money it needed to put astronauts on the moon. The present-day dream of footsteps on Mars won't be quite so simple. A far more expensive Martian mission would blow apart the agency's budget, making it more likely that NASA will need to rely on a little help from space-faring friends.

A recent NASA white paper on the next steps in the “journey to Mars” made the moon comparison explicit: “Like the Apollo program, we embark on this journey for all humanity.” But all humanity won’t foot the bill. Only a select handful of nations have the engineering and hardware capacity to help make the mission a reality. On Monday, NASA officials joined peers from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus at NASA’s Plumb Brook research station in Sandusky, Ohio, to mark an important milestone in the Orion program, which will take astronauts beyond the moon to outer regions of the solar system. The attendees witnessed the delivery of the first service module that will provide propulsion, power, air, and water for astronauts on their way to Mars.

The Orion service module is model of international cooperation and cost-sharing that will be key to reaching the red planet. It was funded by ESA, built by Airbus Group in Europe, and delivered to NASA. Over the next year it will endure a battery of structural tests before a first flight to orbit the moon in mid-2018. That flight will also be the first full-scale test of the largest rocket in NASA history, the Space Launch System. If all goes according to plan, the first manned Orion-SLS flight is expected to launch by 2023, with a manned mission to Mars expected by 2040. But only after spending a large amount of money.

The time frame for all of NASA’s goals is dependent on funding from Congress, which tends to raise and lower spending on space with unpredictable political shifts. Under President Kennedy’s vision for a moon landing, for instance, NASA received more than 4 percent of the federal budget in peak years—about $19.4 billion in total, through 1973—and reached the moon in less than a decade. That’s roughly $120 billion, adjusted for inflation.

Of NASA’s current $18 billion budget, about $2.4 billion goes toward the Orion and SLS programs. The agency says its current budgets will support Orion flights into the 2020s, with about one planned per year as research missions to help build capability for a Mars trip. NASA has offered no projections for the total costs needed to get to Mars. One reason for that is to avoid “scaring” lawmakers, said Marco Caceres, a senior analyst at Teal Group, an aerospace consultancy. Caceres estimates that the Mars mission would cost at least $1 trillion—and that triple that amount “is not out of the realm of possibility.”

Whatever its true total, the behemoth budget to reach Mars means that NASA would likely need to secure additional funding if it hopes to stick to its timeline. Europe might be the best hope for help shouldering costs. The ESA hopes its collaboration with NASA “will actually lead to having a European astronaut on a future space mission,” said Nico Dettmann, the agency’s development department head, during the press conference on Monday.

“We would love to see astronauts from several nations be involved when we first step foot on the red planet,” replied Greg Williams, NASA’s deputy administrator for human exploration and operations. “Partnership is an import element of this whole endeavor,” he added. “The fact of the matter is we’re sort of taking the first steps on [Mars], and the other international partners are going to come along on their own schedules.”

There are other potential space partners outside of Europe, although some of those relationships can come with challenges from earth-bound diplomacy. “I think it’s probably unrealistic to count on Russia or China because they have their own problems,” Caceres said. “And politically Russia is not going to be a reliable partner.” Japan and Korea could help as well, depending on their space priorities in the years ahead.

The other emerging option, as Caceres notes, are the private space companies with proven ability to secure investors to fund the sort of specialized work needed to make a Mars mission feasible. The space ambitions of billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos could lessen NASA’s dependence on financial contributions from other nations. Even without its enormous Cold War budget, Caceres believes the American space program remains attractive: “NASA still has incredible cachet.” - Bloomberg.

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