Astronauts on Mars by 2030

Dann Fry

Astronauts should be able to set foot on Mars by 2030, said Barack Obama during a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in April. He outlined a somewhat radical new plan calling for a “refocused” NASA that goes beyond Constellation–the current program to replace the space shuttle (which Obama announced the termination of in February).

Obama’s plan axes NASA’s current Constellation program, which (until now) planned to develop new Ares I and Ares V rockets to replace the Space Shuttle and essentially send humans to the Moon and Mars.

Instead, the plan proposes to boost NASA funding by $6 billion for such projects as a new telescope to replace Hubble, advanced probes to send into our solar system, and new rockets (not Ares) to shuttle humans to the International Space Station and beyond.

Although Constellation’s canceling might seem like a severe downgrading of NASA’s ambitions, Obama’s plans are just as big––his speech at Kennedy Space Center highlighted hopes for manned missions both to a near-Earth asteroid and Mars within 30 years. The $6 billion proposed to support these ends would, in part, provide for research of topics like the challenges related to humans traveling in deep space.

A major feature of the new plan for NASA is its increased reliance on private companies for space technology. Obama praised the private sector as vital to NASA and the future of space, and said their increased role will save government funds and accelerate development.

In the scope of worldwide development of space technology, the revisions Obama proposes for NASA are excellent news for the future of humans in space. Key opponents in Congress have said that decades from now countries like China and Russia will be far ahead of the USA as a result of these NASA reforms, but those people fail to recognize the potential of space exploration in the hands of the free market. Heavily restricted and neglected by NASA until now, there is a huge amount of interest–and money–available for companies to begin developing rockets, probes, and other space technologies where NASA’s former prowess has in recent decades atrophied. Manned space exploration, at the present, is intensely expensive and impractical when considering distances any farther than Earth’s orbit. A NASA dedicated more heavily to robotic exploration could achieve many times what it has in the last couple decades while still developing technology to benefit future manned missions. Obama’s plan has clear potential for success, especially if conducted hand-in-hand with private enterprise (which will undoubtedly have many millions to put toward the effort).

While scientists have supported Obama, criticism has come from several astronauts (including Neil Armstrong and other Apollo members), who believe Obama is delaying the return of humans to space––something they say is essential to our future exploration efforts––in favor of probes and satellites. Congressmen and citizens in states where NASA is a major employer have also raised complaints, believing the reorganization of NASA and cancellation of Constellation will result in thousands of lost government jobs.