According to a Monday story on the Fox affiliate in Orlando, Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida was upbeat about the goal of landing humans on Mars by the 2030s. He also suggested that the Senate would appropriate the extra money needed so that the heavy lift Space Launch System would conduct its first test flight in December, 2017. Reports suggest that NASA will slip that first test launch to as late as November, 2018. Nelson is the chair of the Senate Space and Science Subcommittee that oversees NASA.
Nelson is an undoubted space enthusiast, and not just because he is a senator from Florida where the Kennedy Space Center resides. He flew on a space shuttle mission in the 1980s, shortly before the Challenger disaster, when he was a House member, using his congressional oversight role as an excuse. He is a keen supporter of a human expedition to Mars as the focus of NASA’s human space exploration efforts.
Current plans for NASA involve diverting a small asteroid or part of a larger asteroid and taking it into lunar orbit. Then the rock would be visited by astronauts in an Orion spacecraft launched by the Space Launch System sometime in the early to mid-2020s. There is not anything else firmly planned for the rest of that decade until the Mars expedition in the 2030s.
Nelson’s pledge to add $225 million to NASA’s budget to accelerate the schedule of the SLS comes at a time of increasing discontent, especially among Congressional Republicans, over the direction of the civil space program. Florida Today notes that many in the GOP would like to see a near term focus on a return to the moon, something that President Obama specifically ruled out. Not only is the moon seen as a stepping stone toward Mars, but is considered a prime target for economic development thanks to its rich natural resources.