On Wednesday, members of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology took NASA to task for it's planned mission to Mars, some going so far as to say the journey should be scrapped altogether. Instead, said the experts, NASA should set its sights on more familiar ground: the moon.
The Space Subcommittee discussed NASA's human exploration proposals for roughly two hours, during which it pointed out a number of flaws in the Mars mission.
Paul Spudis, a senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, came down especially harshly on the space agency. "America’s civil space program is in disarray, with many aspirations and hopes but few concrete, realizable plans for future missions or strategic direction," he said, adding that NASA lacks what it needs to pull off the mission (and throwing some shade at the agency's strong Twitter game):
We pretend that we are on a “#JourneytoMars” but in fact, possess neither the technology nor the economic resources necessary to undertake a human Mars mission now or within the foreseeable future. What is needed is a logically arranged set of short-term, realizable space goals–a series of objectives and destinations that are not only interesting in and of themselves, but whose attainment build space faring capability in the long term.
John Sommerer, of the National Academy of Sciences, points out that there is another problem with NASA's plan to send people to Mars: Namely, that the mission is likely to cause deep physical and psychological damage to the chosen astronauts. Sommerer says:
Long duration orbital missions at Mars, or on Mars’ moons, may not be feasible at all, because of radiation. And finally, the psycho-social limits on a small group of astronauts confined to extremely tight quarters for multiyear periods, without possibility of realtime interaction with family and friends, pose another poorly understood threat to crew safety and mission success. .
In a statement, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith said that NASA's most thought-out stepping stone to Mars—the Asteroid Retrieval Mission—is "a misguided mission without a budget, without a launch date, and without ties to exploration goals."
Spudis added that by focusing on what he sees as an ill-defined mission takes away from focus on a lunar mission. In his view, that puts the U.S. at risk of losing its prominence in the international space race — while Europe, India, Russia and China have doubled down on a new Moon mission, the U.S. is focusing on impossible dreams (i.e., Mars).
And, he continues, disinterest in a lunar mission could pose a national security risk:
China has demonstrated their capability in anti-satellite (ASAT) warfare, most notoriously with the interception and destruction of a target satellite in low Earth orbit in 2007, creating a hazardous cloud of space debris that threatens the satellites of all nations… we would have no recourse to this type of action and few alternatives short of war. In such a scenario, we would be starting at a decided disadvantage as a result of our lack of commitment to establishing a strong national presence in cislunar space.
Pulling back from the Mars mission would be a blow to NASA, which hopes to send a manned mission within the next few years and ultimately set up camp on the red planet. But this is not the first time that experts have wondered whether the mission is overly ambitious. We hope they're wrong.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.