via New Scientist
Securing the survival of humanity is just one of several reasons why NASA should focus on sending people to Mars. The trouble is, the space agency will find it tough to afford the trip.
That’s the conclusion of a sweeping review of the value of the US human space flight programme released today by the National Academy of Sciences. Suggested solutions include practice trips to an asteroid to test Mars technology, and increased collaboration with international partners – most importantly China.
According to the report, a human space flight programme is not just important for technological innovation. It is also vital for the long-term survival of humanity, acting as an escape rope in case of a catastrophe on Earth. Having an inspirational goal – such as Mars – is key because then setbacks or accidents in a particular mission are less likely to derail the broader scheme.
However, the report cautions that a human Mars mission won’t happen unless NASA’s budget increases substantially and the government makes a long-lasting commitment to the plan. Achieving those goals could be tough because the benefits of space flight are hard to demonstrate and public support for human missions is modest.
Here are the report’s main recommendations for how NASA can one day put human boots on Mars:
Lasso an asteroid
The panel says that the US should start with trips to closer destinations such as the moon or an asteroid. These would serve as test beds for the technologies and techniques required for a mission further afield. An existing plan to lasso an asteroid and drag it into orbit around the moon could fit in with this, while the Obama administration has championed a “stepping stone” approach to reaching Mars.
International collaboration could help offset costs, but one problem is that most of NASA’s traditional partners, such as Russia or the European Space Agency, have their sights set on the moon at the moment. If the US wanted to align its short-term goals with potential partners, another possible path would be to build a moon base as a stepping stone to Mars.
Play nice with China
Since sending up its first astronaut in 2003, China has been steadily advancing its space capabilities. Most recently, it put a robotic lander on the moon and has been conducting tests on Earth looking into ways astronauts could grow their own food for long-term missions. Ultimately, it has plans to build its own rival to the International Space Station.
The problem is that, for now, US law prohibits NASA from working on joint projects with China due to national security concerns. The report argues that, considering China’s rapid advances in space, the US is missing out on opportunities to pool resources for a potential Mars mission. Meanwhile, China has given indications that it is interested in partnerships with other governments – and it will move ahead with or without the United States.
Keep SpaceX sweet
The US should also keep working with its private partners, such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, when looking to maintain human space flight in orbit around Earth. But the panel is not convinced that the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which is being developed to ferry astronauts to the ISS, will be powerful enough to send humans to Mars. Instead future Mars missions will rely on the Space Launch System, NASA’s next-generation rocket.
The report makes no mention of Inspiration Mars, a daring plan from multi-millionaire Dennis Tito to send two people on a fly-by of Mars. Although the mission was originally intended to be privately funded, Tito testified in Congress that it could only succeed with NASA’s help, because the Space Launch System would be a necessary part of their proposed Mars shot.