At today's House hearing for the NASA Authorization Act of 2013, witness Thomas Young was asked how long it would take the Agency to put a human on Mars with its current budget. His response was unambiguous: “Never.”
Prepared statements from Young (former executive VP of Lockheed Martin) and co-witness Steven Squyres (Principle Investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover mission) paint an inauspicious picture of NASA's current standing, and its continued role in humanity's exploration of deep space.
Three themes run through my testimony today:
- NASA needs a clear and compelling long-term goal. That goal should be to send human explorers to Mars.
- NASA is being asked to do too much with too little. Unless program content can be matched to budget, the result will be wasted effort and delay.
- Our nation's civil space program will be best served by having high-level policy set by the Administration and Congress, and implementation details recommended by NASA engineers, scientists, and managers.
The dominant strategic issue facing the civil space program is human spaceflight. Today, there is a human spaceflight program but no credible human space exploration strategy. There is much discussion about going to the moon, an asteroid, Phobos, Deimos and Mars; however, there is no credible plan or budget.
This grim dose of reality comes just two days after NASA announced the selection of its latest class of astronauts – a team widely touted as one that could one day lead missions to Mars.
"They're excited about the science we're doing on the International Space Station and our plan to launch from US soil to there on spacecraft built by American companies," said Nasa administrator Charles Bolden. "And they're ready to help lead the first human mission to an asteroid and then on to Mars."
But in the absence of a compelling game plan – and the funding to match – that dream is looking less and less likely. (Who's betting SpaceX wins the race to the Red Planet?)
For more statements, key soundbites and links relevant to today's hearing, visit NASA Watch.