PRESS CONTACT: Chris Carberry
CEO, Explore Mars Inc.
The Human Exploration of Mars: A Congressional Opportunity
Dear Committee Chairman Smith, Committee Ranking Member Johnson, Space Subcommittee Chairman Babin, and Space Subcommittee Ranking Member Edwards
Explore Mars, Inc. respectfully submits this letter to the Committee with reference to the hearing, Next Steps to Mars: Deep Space Habitats, which has been scheduled for Wednesday, May 18, 2016. We thank you and the rest of the members of the Committee for scheduling this hearing and for allowing us to express our views on this critically important topic.
Explore Mars, Inc. is a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to the goal of sending humans to Mars within the next two decades. We believe that achieving this goal is important to our nation for many reasons, including maintaining America’s world leadership, for our nation’s economy, for advancing STEM education, and for our nation’s overall prosperity and security.
Sending humans to explore Mars is not a new goal for the United States space program. It has been a priority since the days of the Apollo Program, and it has been NASA’s official goal under multiple Administrations, as reflected in the NASA Authorization Acts of 2005, 2008, and 2010. Most recently, the U.S. House of Representatives, in Section 202 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2015 [H.R. 810 – (2015-2016)] stated that, “Human exploration deeper into the Solar System shall be a core mission of the Administration. It is the policy of the United States that the goal of the Administration’s exploration program shall be to successfully conduct a crewed mission to the surface of Mars to begin human exploration of that planet…”.
Yet, until recently, political and technological progress toward achieving this goal has remained elusive. However, thanks to sustained bi-partisan support by Congress, engineering and technology solutions to the challenges of traveling to Mars may soon be at hand. Moreover, both NASA and the private sector, working together, have been developing increasingly credible, affordable, and sustainable scenarios that lay out substantive plans for initial human missions to Mars in the early to mid-2030s.
Explore Mars, Inc. applauds Congress for taking a significant step forward at the end of 2015, when, reversing a recent trend of NASA funding shortfalls, Congress approved an increase of nearly $800 million in the overall NASA budget, over and above the Administration’s FY2016 budget request. Nevertheless, even with this increase in FY2016, NASA’s budget is still significantly below what is necessary to accomplish all that NASA has been tasked with by Congress and the Administration. We respectfully urge Congress to take further action to close this shortfall by increasing NASA’s FY2017 budget by $1 billion above the FY2016 enacted level, to a total of $20.3 billion.
There has been undeniable progress in the development of the capabilities necessary for long- duration human exploration beyond Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), thanks to work on the International Space Station (ISS). There has also been great progress in developing the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, with hardware now actually being built and tested. However, current scenarios under study by industry that are aimed at getting humans to Mars by the 2030s, which include cost estimates, demonstrate a shortfall in several key technology areas.
These scenarios all are converging on the same essential technology capabilities, each of which is time-sensitive and critical for achieving the goal of human exploration of Mars:
Long-Duration Human Operations Beyond LEO, especially Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS): Keeping astronauts safe and active on the trip to Mars, on its surface, and on the return journey to Earth, is a major challenge. Enormous advances in our capabilities for safe operation in deep space have been made in recent years, thanks to the ISS. Necessary next-generation capabilities include ECLSS systems that are more power-efficient, robust, lower- mass, and serviceable, in addition to spacecraft power management systems, radiation protection, and capabilities for autonomous operation. Testing the habitation systems in the actual deep- space environment, such as in cis-lunar space, which is accessible by the SLS and Orion spacecraft, is necessary to demonstrate the systems for long-duration missions to Mars.
Additionally, we need to aggressively utilize our robotic missions to Mars to enable human missions to the Red Planet. Two such critical areas are Entry, Descent, Landing, and Ascent, and In-Situ Resource Utilization:
Mars atmospheric Entry, Descent, Landing, and Ascent (EDLA): EDLA may be the single greatest technical hurdle to overcome in order to successfully land and return humans from the surface of Mars. Development of these capabilities will take some time and in the mid-term enable high priority scientific exploration of the Red Planet that is not otherwise possible. Unfortunately, EDLA funding – for human missions and major science goals – has stalled in recent years, and more recently has seen significant budget cuts.
There is significant work that can be done at Earth to enable Martian EDLA, but ultimately we need to be flying progressively heavier spacecraft/landers at Mars to test and validate these EDLA systems to ensure that they will be safe for humans. These missions would not be standalone EDLA missions but rather would be included with other key science and “humans to Mars” enabling engineering objectives.
In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU): For sustained operations on the Martian surface, use of local resources will be essential for significantly reducing the amount of mass that must be carried to Mars and thus the overall cost of these missions. Water and oxygen are the most critical resources. Oxygen can be extracted anywhere on the planet from the rarified CO2 atmosphere, and a prototype extraction device, called the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), will be flown on the Mars 2020 Rover. Recent discoveries have shown that there are also significant quantities of water on Mars near the surface. Water is exciting for all the reasons that water is critical on Earth; it will also allow for self-sufficiency in terms of the local production of propellant for the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). Unfortunately, while we know that water exists on Mars, the orbital reconnaissance instruments flown to date were not designed to find water that is easily accessible for ISRU. A next-generation reconnaissance orbiter will be needed to precisely identify where these feed stocks are located. Access to this water will probably determine where the initial human base on Mars is located, and for this reason the First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars, held in October 2015, strongly recommended that a next-generation reconnaissance orbiter be made an immediate priority. Workshop participants also saw a strong synergy in the ISRU and science objectives that such an orbiter would make possible. In time, it will be necessary to validate on the planet’s surface what was learned from orbital measurements about these water feed stocks and to verify production techniques, but orbital reconnaissance is the critical next step.
Coordination Within NASA and With the Private Sector, Academia, and our International Partners
Essential to successful human and scientific exploration of Mars will be expanded coordination among the three relevant mission directorates at NASA: human space flight, science, and technology. Moreover, new approaches for stimulating private/entrepreneurial activities must be encouraged, as the private sector, along with academia, both enthusiastic about and committed to the exploration of Mars, are two of the greatest strengths of this nation. We must also fully encourage and engage our international partners so that they can develop their contributions to a multi-national program of exploration. Indeed, these were among the findings and observations that were made by the recent Mars Affordability and Sustainability Workshops, three of which have been held to date (2013, 2014, and 2015), the reports of which can be found on the Explore Mars website at www.exploremars.org/affording-mars.
The Critical Next Ten Years
NASA needs a clear budget picture to enable timely decisions on and commitment to the necessary courses of action. In addition to a prioritized increase in the NASA budget, advances toward human missions to Mars will not be possible if some key decisions are delayed much longer. As indicated earlier in this letter, human missions to Mars in the 2030s will rely on some key capabilities being developed and demonstrated in the 2020s, which is fast approaching. Fortunately, we have a Mars program that is far more integrated than ever before, and which is the beneficiary of broad bi-partisan support as well as widespread support among the general public. But we need a long-duration habitat to carry humans to deep space, and then to Mars, and we need that habitat as soon, as safe, and as affordable as possible. We also need to develop increasingly capable EDLA systems. Furthermore, we also need a new class of robotic reconnaissance for Mars that, while advancing science, also ties directly to human exploration needs such as ISRU.
Scientific exploration of Mars continues to reveal an intriguing world, rich with mysteries yet to be revealed, as well as a potential site for long-duration human habitation. Such exploration, when committed to and properly funded, will contribute to improving the quality of life for our country. As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has frequently observed, “We are closer to sending humans to Mars than at any time in the past”.
Explore Mars, Inc. believes, however, that we should no longer refer to Mars as the ‘ultimate destination’ or the ‘horizon goal’. In 2016 and beyond, such phrases just solidify the perception that Mars is a far-off goal that never seems to get any closer. With continued Congressional support, and in partnership with the private sector and the scientific communities, as well as the international community, human missions to Mars starting in the early to mid-2030s are now a goal that is achievable in the near-term; but such will require sufficient budgets and policy sustainability. Mars needs to be humanity’s next great destination, with intermediate stops and the establishment of infrastructure along the way, but all on a clear path outward and into the solar system.
Thank you, again, for allowing us the opportunity to provide this input to the Committee. Explore Mars, Inc. stands ready to provide further input and recommendations on the importance of sending humans to Mars, and we look forward to working with the Committee and its staff on ways in which we can all help to bring us closer to that goal.
Chris Carberry, CEO
Artemis Westenberg, President
Rick Zucker, Director of Political Outreach