Status Report

Statement by Sen. Nelson: Destination Mars – Putting American Boots on the Surface of the Red Planet

By SpaceRef Editor
July 25, 2018
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Mr. Chairman, it’s certainly an exciting time down at Kennedy Space Center.  Just this year, we got a major funding increase for the Exploration Ground Systems Program, including money for a second mobile launcher that will allow us to explore beyond low Earth orbit sooner and safer.  Teams at K.S.C. are continuing to make progress on Orion and Starliner. And the Dragon Capsule for SpaceX’s first commercial crew test flight arrived at the Cape just a few weeks ago.

But while it is truly an exciting time for our space program, it is also a very challenging time. We are asking more from the women and men of the NASA family than ever. 

We’ve got to keep the space station operating safely and productively.  We need to get our new crewed vehicles across the finish line and get our astronauts launching from American soil again. That is job number one.  

We need to finish building SLS, Orion and the infrastructure at the Cape to launch them.  And, of course, we need to keep up our progress on NASA’s world-leading science and aeronautics activities.  

Finally, we need to prioritize the kinds of technology investments that will make a mission to Mars safer, more productive and more affordable. 

For example – revolutionary new propulsion systems being tested on the ground right now could shorten the round-trip time to Mars by months.  

This year’s budget request from NASA proposed some new programs – including efforts to develop a range of small, medium and large lunar landers – ultimately leading toward a human lunar lander.  

The request also included development of a human-tended “gateway” in orbit around the moon. 

The gateway was previously portrayed by NASA leadership as a test vehicle for a deep space transport to take us to Mars. But notably absent from the request is any mention of the Mars transport vehicle.

So, as we review these proposals, we need to think about two important points. First, do these missions help us achieve our goal of getting humans to Mars within the next fifteen years or so? And, second, show me the money!

The Augustine Commission found NASA needed an increase of a few billion dollars a year, and increases that will at least keep pace with inflation, to do any sort of meaningful exploration program. A couple of years later, the National Academies found that if we only got increases in NASA’s budget equivalent to inflation, in the scenario where we returned to the Moon first, we wouldn’t make it to Mars until 2050. 

Well folks, I don’t think we want to wait that long.  

International and public private partnerships, if employed smartly, could certainly help improve the affordability of our exploration program. 

And in recent years, Congress has given NASA some pretty healthy budget increases. I will certainly be pushing for continuing increases. 

But we need a plan that keeps everyone – industry, Congress, our international partners and the men and women of NASA – pulling in the right direction.

Our 2017 authorization bill required NASA to define and deliver to Congress a step-by-step plan for reaching Mars. I’m disappointed and concerned that this human exploration roadmap is now over seven months overdue, but NASA is moving anyway on major acquisitions like development of a large lunar lander. 

We need to make sure we are making smart choices in terms of priorities. And we need to make sure we understand what NASA needs to do what we’ve asked of them.

So, Mr. Chairman, the topic of this hearing is very timely.  And the witness panel is outstanding.  

I want to thank each of you for coming, and I look forward to your thoughts on how we get boots on Mars.  

SpaceRef staff editor.