By Chelsey B. Coombs Dec 11, 2017
President Trump’s governance has rattled a new and unexpected faction of Americans — people who really want to go to Mars.
Trump on Monday signed Space Policy Directive 1, also known as SPD-1, directing NASA to send Americans back to the moon. But Mars proponents are worried the moon directive will ground their efforts.
“The directive I’m signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery,” Trump said. “It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 for long-term exploration and use.”
A journey to Mars, which NASA has had tentative plans to accomplish since the 1970s, seems to be more of an afterthought for the president.
“This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps someday to many worlds beyond,” he said.
Chris Carberry is the CEO of the non-profit group Explore Mars, which aims to send humans to Mars within the next 20 years. While he’s glad a mission to Mars was mentioned in SPD-1, he notes there’s no apparent plan for NASA to make both a mission to the moon and a mission to Mars happen.
“We’ve never been opposed to going to the moon, it’s just finding that proper balance,” Carberry said. “Can we find a way within what the available budget will be to go to the moon and go to Mars without delaying Mars to the later part of the century?”
A NASA press release said budgetary information won’t be available until NASA releases their 2019 budget next year.
“Obviously with enough money we could get both [Mars and moon missions] done in a reasonable period of time, but that remains a big if,” Carberry said.
SPD-1 came from a unanimous October recommendation by the National Space Council, which was relaunched in June this year after being disbanded in 1993. Vice President Mike Pence chairs the commission, which is mainly made up of Trump cabinet members, along with acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Jr.
“We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said in that October meeting.
The 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, which was passed with bipartisan Congressional support and signed by Trump in March, does make it a goal to get humans to Mars by 2033.
But with the space shuttle program discontinued in 2011, a viable way to get American astronauts above low-earth orbit may be difficult. A White House press release on SPD-1 said, “In the coming years the United States will launch astronauts on an American-made rocket and crew system, the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicles.”
But the completion date for the Space Launch System has continually been pushed back, and the SLS may not make its maiden voyage until 2020.
Proponents say prioritizing moon exploration will be helpful for future Mars missions to not only test new technology, but also build lunar fuel depots on the surface of the moon. But the moon isn’t a direct analog to Mars in terms of its atmosphere and surface, and Carberry said that strategy may delay the Mars mission significantly.
“I guarantee if we wait until we build lunar fuel depots on the surface of the moon before we go to Mars, we won’t be going to Mars until the latter part of the century or beyond,” Carberry said.
Carberry is holding out hope that a human moon landing won’t derail NASA’s 2033 Mars goal.
“If they can provide a budget and the right partnerships, we won’t turn the moon into a roadblock to Mars, but something that truly is an enabler,” Carberry said. “That’s more easily said than done.”