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National Research Council hits NASA space exploration, proposes pathway to Mars

Mars from the Hubble space telescope
Mars from the Hubble space telescope
NASA (public domain)

The National Research Council issued its report on the future of space exploration on Wednesday. The report stated that the “horizon goal” for any program of space exploration in the near term (i.e. the next two decades) is a Mars surface expedition, It also stated that the current NASA program, which includes a mission that would snag an asteroid, put in in lunar orbit, and visit it with astronauts is inadequate to meet that goal.

The report gave two reasons for its critique of the current NASA program. First the asteroid redirect mission would not create and test technologies necessary to conduct a crewed Mars mission. Second, NASA projects essentially flat budgets for the foreseeable future. Any space exploration program worthy of the name will cost considerably more money, with five percent increases in NASA funding for a number of years.

The report proposes a number of pathways which can be broken down into two categories, moon and asteroid. A series of lunar surface expeditions would test technologies that will be necessary for conducting operations on the Martian surface. A visit to an asteroid “in its native orbit” would test deep space transportation technologies. A combination of both would likely be preferable for the Mars goal.

On the subject of money, the report presented a bad news/good news finding. The bad news is that there is little public support for increasing funding for space exploration. The good news is that there is also little opposition for doing the same. This suggests that a president and a congress would be able to ramp up space spending without spending too much political capital. Indeed there is every possibility that public support will grow as the benefits of the space exploration program becomes apparent.

There were no real surprises in the report, as it tends to confirm consensus thinking about space exploration outside the current administration. It suggests essentially a return to the Bush era Constellation program, albeit with higher and more stable funding. Whether this recommendation will achieve some political resonance remains to be seen.