A panel appointed to recommend a way ahead for the US space programme following major funding cuts has rejected the idea of ignoring the Moon and sending astronauts straight to Mars. Trimming its shortlist of plans from seven to four, the Augustine panel has also stated that serious human space exploration is not possible without more funds than are currently allocated.
The Human Space Flight Plans Committee was set up by the Obama administration to recommend ways ahead for NASA's manned space programme in May, as it had become clear that the Bush-era plan for a return to the Moon followed by a Mars mission wasn't viable following cuts made by Congress to the projected NASA budget in recent years.
Current plans call for Ares I and V rockets and Orion spacecraft to replace the current space shuttles, with flights starting in 2015. Following a Moonbase programme starting at the end of the next decade, a first manned mission to Mars might set out in 2030. But NASA expected to receive more than $100bn of funds for manned spaceflight by 2020 when these plans were drawn up in 2005. Since then, this sum has been cut to $80bn.
"This budget is just simply not friendly to exploration," said committee member Sally Ride, first American woman in space, quoted by Space.com. "It's very difficult to find an exploration scenario that actually fits within this very restrictive budget guidance that we've been given."
Some had suggested that NASA could still achieve President Bush's stated goal of a man or woman on Mars in 2030 by scrapping plans to return to the Moon - hopefully setting up a permanent base - beforehand. Preliminary efforts on renewed Moon exploration are already underway, with a reconnaissance satellite now busy hunting for useful frozen water at the lunar poles.
Going straight to Mars - the so-called "Mars Direct" option - would be risky, however. The only manned missions which have left the safety of the Earth's magnetic field were the Apollo moonshots of the 1960s and 70s, and they didn't seriously tackle the various dangers and unknowns of long voyages or other human presence away from Earth. Most analysts suggest that the only way for astronauts to get to Mars and back in reasonable safety would be to build up expertise beforehand in less ambitious voyages: to the Moon, nearby Lagrange points or Near Earth Objects (NEOs, asteroids or comets passing nearby).
"We think Mars Direct is a mission that we're really not prepared to take on technically or financially, and it would likely not succeed," said committee chairman Norman Augustine yesterday. However he reaffirmed that the committee believed humanity should go to Mars following more cautious efforts beyond low Earth orbit.
"I really want to emphasize that we're not giving up on Mars at all," he stated.
The four options now remaining on the committee's list all call for increased NASA funds above those now planned.
"I did think that one of the options would fit under the present funding budget," said Augustine. "I guess I should have realized that it wasn't possible... Our view is that it will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that's terribly inspiring in the human spaceflight area."
It would appear that a Mars mission in the 2030 timeframe is now unlikely, however, with the shortlist suggesting that the furthest humans might get by then would be an NEO or Lagrange point visit.
The committee will submit its final report to the President next month. ®