Witnesses Debate Strategic Stepping Stones to Mars

May 21, 2013

Washington, D.C. - The Subcommittee on Space held a hearing today to examine possible options for the next steps in human space flight and how these options move the U.S. closer to a human mission to Mars and beyond. Witnesses debated whether the Obama administration’s proposed asteroid rendezvous mission is a better precursor for an eventual manned mission to Mars compared to other missions, such as a return to the Moon.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “Human space flight represents the aspirations and ambitions of the American people. Not long ago, the exploration of Mars was considered science fiction. Today, with two active Martian robotic missions on-going, it’s no longer fiction at all. Space exploration goes beyond rockets and avionics; it is about hope for the future.  NASA should have a well thought out and convincing plan before committing scarce resources. The trip to Mars will not be a direct one.  We will need to train for it before we send a crew, much like the Apollo missions.”

As NASA prepares to take the next steps in human exploration of the solar system there are many unanswered questions about the correct path to Mars. NASA will need to acquire new capabilities to travel to Mars and beyond. The two most commonly discussed possibilities for precursor missions to Mars involve manned missions to the Moon or an asteroid.

Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.): “As we move forward in the next few months with the NASA Authorization Act, Congress must address our path to Mars and beyond so there will be no question as to where we are headed and how we will get there. I believe the decisions we make today will determine whether the U.S. maintains its leadership in space tomorrow.  In the future, as in the past, I hope we will be able to focus mission priorities and goals to ensure our best chances of success.”

There are several compelling reasons for using the Moon as a training ground to prepare for more complex missions. Landing on the Moon would develop technical capabilities for landing on and launching from a large celestial body, something NASA has not done for more than four decades. Establishing a semi-permanent or permanent presence on the Moon would give astronauts an opportunity to work and live in an environment radically different from Earth.

The Obama administration has instead proposed a robotic capture and redirection of an asteroid to lunar orbit for astronauts to later visit. The mission concept is based on a study by the Keck Institute for Space Studies that estimated the cost of such a mission at approximately $2.6 billion. NASA has not identified a budget profile for this mission beyond FY 2014.

The following witnesses testified today:
Dr. Louis Friedman, Co-Lead, Keck Institute for Space Studies Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study and Executive Director Emeritus, The Planetary Society
Dr. Paul Spudis, Senior Staff Scientist, Lunar and Planetary Institute
Dr. Steven M. Squyres, Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University
Mr. Douglas Cooke, Owner, Cooke Concepts and Solutions