NASA: Next stop Mars?

President Obama to address NASA’s future this week, Mars could be on agenda

There's lots of pressure and some speculation that President Obama will throw some sort of manned space flight bone in the direction of NASA when he addresses the space agency's future plans this week at a Kennedy Space Center address. 

What that may be could come in the form of a formal challenge to NASA to make a manned space flight to Mars in say 10 to 15 years a priority.  If that were the challenge it would take quite the effort as most of the equipment needed to make such a trip is largely undeveloped.  

21 critical future NASA missions 

There is pressure to resurrect the Constellation program, which while not officially dead is certainly in lame duck status as Congress still needs to  decide whether or not to fund it.  Obama's NASA space budget cancels Constellation. 

An open letter that first appeared on the Orlando Sentinel's blog site  today signed by a number of former astronauts and other NASA proponents urges the President to re-instate the Constellation program.  The letter stated: "America is faced with the near-simultaneous ending of the Shuttle program and your recent budget proposal to cancel the Constellation program. This is wrong for our country for many reasons. We are very concerned about America ceding its hard earned global leadership in space technology to other nations. 

We are stunned that, in a time of economic crisis, this move will force as many as 30,000 irreplaceable engineers and managers out of the space industry. We see our human exploration program, one of the most inspirational tools to promote science, technology, engineering and math to our young people, being reduced to mediocrity. NASA's human space program has inspired awe and wonder in all ages by pursuing the American tradition of exploring the unknown. We strongly urge you to drop this misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future. 

We urge you to demonstrate the vision and determination necessary to keep our nation at the forefront of human space exploration with ambitious goals and the proper resources to see them through. This is not the time to abandon the promise of the space frontier for a lack of will or unwillingness to pay the price." 

A Mars mission, not revisiting the moon would seem to fit that bill.   In fact some of the groundwork for such a mission is already in place or soon will be.  For example, NASA Mars Science Laboratory should launch before Christmas 2011. The Mars Science Laboratory is actually a rover that will drive around the red planet looking for that elusive data that will tell us whether Mars ever was, or is still is capable of supporting life. The rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface, NASA said. The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life and could do some prep work for a future landing. 

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) in November said they are aiming to cooperate on all manner of robotic orbiters, landers and exploration devices for a future trip to Mars. 

Specifically, NASA and ESA agreed to consider the establishment of a new joint initiative to define and implement their scientific, programmatic, and technological goals for the exploration of Mars. The program would focus on several launch opportunities with landers and orbiters conducting astrobiological, geological, geophysical, climatological, and other high-priority investigations and aiming at returning samples from Mars in the mid-2020s. 

The envisioned program includes the provision that by 2016, ESA will build what it calls an Entry, Descent, and semi-soft Landing System (EDLS) technology demonstrator and a science/relay orbiter. In 2018, the ESA would also deliver its ExoMars rover equipped with drilling capability. NASA's contribution in 2016 includes a trace gas mapping and imaging scientific payload for the orbiter and the launch and, in 2018 a rover, the EDLS, and rockets for the launch.  

Even Obama's now controversial NASA 2011 budget plan calls for "transformative technology development and demonstrations to pursue new approaches to human spaceflight exploration with more sustainable and advanced capabilities that will allow Americans to explore the Moon, Mars and other destinations. This effort will include a flagship demonstration program, with international partners, commercial and other government entities, to demonstrate critical technologies, such as in-orbit propellant transfer and storage, inflatable modules, automated/autonomous rendezvous and docking, closed-loop life support systems, and other next- generation capabilities.

While its not specific, NASA also calls for "heavy-lift propulsion research and development that will investigate a broad scope of R&D activities to support next-generation space launch propulsion technologies, with the aim of reducing costs and shortening development timeframes for future heavy-lift systems for human exploration." 

What do you think? 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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