Mars has been the vague next big goal of NASA’s manned space exploration since the 1970s, but a real, concrete commitment never quite seemed to happen. Until now. A bipartisan bill passed yesterday in Congress authorizes a new $19.5 billion budget for NASA, and an official mandate to send a crewed mission to mars within 25 years. Oh boy.
The main goal of the bill is to keep the next president from changing or interfering with NASA’s goals and development projects, like pretty much every new president tends to do, probably right after they get the tour of Area 51 and the “President’s Privilege,” a one-time chance to poke the preserved alien corpse we’re hiding with a sterilized stick.
The bill, S.3346, provides a good bit more money than the Obama administration’s proposed $19 billion NASA budget, and will hopefully safeguard this money for NASA’s use no matter who or what ends up in the White House next year.
The bill provides for a number of crucial programs:
• Continued development of the new Space Launch System launchers and the Orion Earth-orbit-and-beyond spacecraft, with the goal of an uncrewed mission in 2018 and a crewed mission by 2021.
• Work to keep the ISS operational to at least 2024, with possible extension to 2028
• Set 2018 as the date for commercial-sector crew launches to the ISS
• Development of a new spacesuit for Mars use
• And, of course, a crewed Mars mission by the 2030s.
The bill also mentions space science goals, including the James Webb space telescope (the Hubble’s replacement), and study of the Jovian moon Europa, a candidate for possible life.
The one notable mission the bill does not provide for is NASA’s proposed asteroid capture and return mission. Such a mission would attempt to capture a multi-ton asteroid and bring it to lunar orbit. Once there, the asteroid would be used to help develop skills and technologies needed for the crewed Mars mission, and provide a comprehensive test of the Orion spacecraft systems.
Plus, it’d just be pretty damn cool.
The status of the asteroid return mission is not clear at this time.
Overall, the bill seems to be a solid and definitive plan for NASA, and appears to prioritize the agency in ways that make sense: large-scale, deep-space exploration and technology development to NASA, and low-Earth orbit cargo and crew ferrying responsibilities farmed out to commercial enterprises.
An actual bill with a mandate for a Mars landing is a big deal. This may be the best piece of bipartisan legislation to come out of our government in a long time.
Now, we just have to get to the Red Planet before Elon Musk and his army of robots and fanatical Martian Muskovites take the whole damn thing over.