When it comes to spaceflight, there are crazy optimistic schedules like the one that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sometimes throws around, and then there’s just crazy. Some recent comments from the chief executive of Boeing, a space company that simultaneously holds the most lucrative contracts in NASA’s exploration, international space station and commercial crew programs, seem to fall into the latter category.
Speaking at a recent forum about NASA’s plans to send humans to Mars, Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg expressed his own opinion. “I expect we will put the first person in my life on Mars,” he said. “I think in this decade, and the first person to get there will be on a Boeing rocket.”
This is a ridiculous statement. NASA may one day send people to Mars on a “Boeing rocket” – the Space Launch System – but that won’t happen in this decade or the next. On the current schedule, and with the staggering development costs of the Boeing rocket running into the tens of billions of dollars, it seems unlikely that NASA will even land humans on the moon by the 2020s. Mars remains a distant, fleeting dream.
Muilenburg’s rah-rah rhetoric is also seriously undermined by comments from NASA’s head of human spaceflight. While a recent comment by Bill Gerstenmaier didn’t get much public attention, it rejected all grandiose ideas about NASA’s deep space exploration plans, and especially the talk about Mars. At a NASA advisory board meeting in late March regarding the planning of human deep space missions, Gerstenmaier said, “We’re going to try to live within a set budget.”
Gerstenmaier may be soft-spoken, but this was quite a consistent statement about a mission to Mars. In fact, Gerstenmaier said, NASA’s efforts to design, develop and fly deep space missions were now planned on a fixed budget that didn’t include future increases for inflation.
For proponents of robust human exploration, Gerstenmaier’s “tax realism” is a problem. In 2013 and 2014, a group of outsiders spent about a year studying how NASA could muster the funding — and the political and public will — to mount a Human-to-Mars campaign using the Space Launch System- rocket ship. Then they studied the costs and the kind of budget needed to make it happen.
At the end of their research, this National Academies group wrote an influential report titled “Pathways to Exploration,” which explored the future of NASA’s manned space flight plans. The study authors admittedly struggled to make the numbers work and figure out how best to maintain political will over the 15 to 20 year timeframe it takes to develop and test Mars technologies — and then to fly the missions. Spoiler alert: a budget with modest increases for inflation posed a huge challenge. A fixed budget was impossible.
When asked about Gerstenmaier’s talk on living within flat budgets, a Pathways report co-chair, Cornell University planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine, referred Ars to the study’s central conclusion: “A human space exploration program beyond low orbit the earth that adheres to the defined trajectory principles is not sustainable with a budget that only increases enough to keep up with inflation.”
Assuming an exploration budget with adjustments for an inflation rate of 2.5 percent, the Pathways report found that NASA could land humans on Mars by the 2050s only under “extremely optimistic” conditions, said Ariel Waldman, a science communicator and co-author. of the report. NASA’s recent budget and operations have not changed this calculation. “What we’re seeing today is what our 2014 Pathways report predicted in a flat-budget scenario,” she added.
Because of the congressional charter, the Pathways report only considered scenarios where the Space Launch System rocket was carrying cargo and astronauts to Mars. One of the challenges with this booster is that it costs so much to fly that NASA can only commit to one launch per year. However, some NASA mission plans to reach Mars require seven to nine launches from the large rocket for a single landing.
In interviews with Ars, some authors of the Pathways study said NASA could potentially send people to the Moon and eventually Mars for much less money and possibly faster by relying more heavily on the private sector, particularly with launch services and reusable rockets. (The Space Launch System is completely consumed after launch).
One of the Pathways report’s co-authors, Fordham University history professor Asif Siddiqi, said the study did not take into account public-private partnerships with companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX. “I think those can give some ‘leeway’ for planning, assuming common goals and proportionate funding arrangements,” he said.
Whether NASA has the freedom to move away from planning a Mars mission around the Space Launch System rocket will depend to some extent on the inclinations of its new administrator, former Congresswoman Jim Bridenstine, who was sworn in Monday. He comes to the office after a controversial confirmation process that saw the final vote in the US Senate split along party lines.
Bridenstine has been open about commercializing aspects of spaceflight, including Earth observation, and his candidacy for administrator has been quietly defended by companies such as SpaceX. (Other potential nominees, such as former NASA administrator Michael Griffin, were seen as more hostile to the cheaper launch options that would threaten Boeing’s rocket).
Early in the nomination process, Bridenstine gained the support of key senators such as Richard Shelby of Alabama, who is a strong supporter of the Space Launch System, so he must have pledged support for the Space Launch System at private meetings. Still, Bridenstine has the ability as an administrator to send cargo delivery contracts to private launch companies and push for more NASA science missions to fly on cheaper boosters from SpaceX and Blue Origin.
Even this can be a challenge. For example, NASA will power the Space Launch System rocket with four RS-25 engines, the same engines used by the space shuttle. Initially, NASA will use 16 refurbished space shuttle main engines, but when those run out, the agency will use newly manufactured engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne. In late 2015, NASA awarded Aerojet $1.16 billion to restart production of those old engines.
Just three years later, after that huge prize, NASA invited other commercial companies to compete to provide “human-rated, flight-certified, high-performance liquid rocket engines” for the Space Launch System rocket. With that lead and the seed funding, no other company can compete with Aerojet for future contracts. The question then is whether these are the kind of “commercial” opportunities that NASA is pursuing, or whether it will aggressively move toward fixed-price contracts that can dramatically lower exploration costs.
Mars is “off the table”
Five-time astronaut John Grunsfeld, one of the strongest advocates for human exploration of Mars, has so far been unimpressed with the Trump administration’s approach to space travel. A former chief scientist at NASA, Grunsfeld has helped make human exploration of Mars the main target of NASA’s spaceflight program for the past decade.
In its first 16 months, the Trump administration has reset NASA’s goals for lunar exploration and plans to make significant investments in a “Gateway” in orbit around the moon to serve both as a station for humans. to live in deep space and as a way station for vehicles to cycle between the surface of the moon and orbit.
“The simple answer is that space exploration is not a priority for this government, despite the rhetoric,” Grunsfeld said. “Mars is off the table as far as I know. The Gateway is the asteroid mission without the asteroid and is primarily intended to give aerospace contractors something to do for the next decade while we wait for real leadership.”
Maybe Bridenstine will put NASA on a track that leads more directly to human landings on the moon, or to Mars, but Grunsfeld doesn’t see that happening. He also said that while companies like SpaceX have laudable goals, they probably won’t achieve anything as daring as sending humans to Mars without significant government funding.
After Gerstenmaier’s comments at the advisory board meeting, Ars reached out to NASA for some additional context. A spokeswoman for the agency, Kathryn Hambleton, said the agency is still planning an ambitious exploration program and appreciates President Trump’s support and NASA’s bipartisan support.
To meet its exploration goals, she said, NASA has accounted for “significant private investment” to stay within future budget estimates. The space agency also plans to work closely with international partners to develop its exploration plans.
That said, Hambleton acknowledged that the president’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 through 2023 focuses on the Gateway and only precursor work for robot landings on the moon in the mid-2020s, along with some early habitat research. from Mars. “Major Mars activity and significant lunar activity are outside of this budget cycle,” she said.
In other words, NASA is now investing next to nothing in designing and building the technology that is really needed to put humans safely on Mars — or bring them home. It has almost no funding for these projects in the next five years.
Given this state of affairs, the idea of a human-to-Mars mission soon seems bizarre. Ars asked a Boeing official for clarification on Muilenburg’s prediction of Mars landings this decade. Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling did not answer the question in his response. Instead, he said: “The SLS rocket, built by Boeing and NASA, is currently the only vehicle that can reach Mars. Boeing is confident that if the US government and NASA make landing people on Mars a national priority , the SLS missile take them there and take them home.”