COMMENTARY | The National Research Council has issued its long awaited report on the future of space exploration. It largely condemned NASA’s approach to the problem and suggested alternatives. The space agency’s response was breathtaking to say the least.
“NASA welcomes the release of this report. After a preliminary review, we are pleased to find the NRC’s assessment and identification of compelling themes for human exploration are consistent with the bipartisan plan agreed to by Congress and the Administration in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and that we have been implementing ever since.”
Actually the report concluded that the NASA approach, which involves the asteroid redirect mission that would snag a small rock, place it into lunar orbit, and then visit it with astronauts, is a non-starter. It would not develop the technology necessary to go to Mars. In any case NASA is spending far less money than is really needed to conduct a proper space exploration program. It needs an annual increase of five percent if it ever hopes to get people to Mars in the lifetimes of most people.
The NRC suggests a number of pathways to get to Mars. Some involve visiting an asteroid in its “native orbit,” the plan that most thought President Obama approved before it was downsized to the ARM. Some suggest a return to the Constellation plan of establishing a moon base first. One has NASA doing both, developing surface operations and deep space flight technology and experience needed to go to Mars.
It seems that NASA, and by extension, the Obama administration is in deep denial about the implications of the NRC report. It concluded, as many did from the first moment President Obama cancelled the Constellation Program, that the current program of record has not a chance of succeeding. The space agency seems to think that if it can pretend that the report validates its program instead, that it can brazen things out.
It might be right too, considering recent history. Congress has huffed and puffed but has not yet been able to get the space program back on track. Will the report provide ammunition to make that happen now? It can only be hoped. But that will require leadership, something that is sorely lacking thus far where space is concerned.