WASHINGTON (FloridaToday.com) -- Landing astronauts on Mars is unaffordable given today's budget realities, but the U.S. can't afford to give up on such a mission.
That's the thrust of a new congressionally mandated report by the National Research Council. The 285-page analysis, released Wednesday, concludes that a successful trip to the Red Planet depends on a well-financed, "disciplined" approach with broad buy-in that must not fluctuate from administration to administration.
The authors of the report, "Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration," acknowledge that designating Mars as the space program's ultimate goal is nothing new.
"What's different about this report is that we are recommending an approach that we believe will provide a robust way of getting to Mars in an endeavor that will take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars and quite probably human lives," said Jonathan Lunine, director of Cornell University's Center for Radiophysics and Space Research and co-chairman of the committee that wrote the report.
The report concludes that if America decides it wants to explore Mars -- and the committee thinks it should -- the nation and its leaders must take actions they haven't always executed well: Come up with a plan that enjoys almost total support, fully fund it, be willing to assume risks, and involve private and international partners from the get-go.
Committee members also warned against veering from a course that will take years to achieve.
That may not sound revolutionary to NASA, which delivered on President John F. Kennedy's commitment to a lunar landing in the 1960s. But the agency isn't immune to the parochial politics that often hamper other federally managed efforts.
Disagreements among politicians, aerospace firms and international partners over destinations, strategies and costs have yanked the space program in different directions in recent years, squandering time and money, critics say.
President Barack Obama's decision in 2010 to scrap the return-to-the-moon mission championed by President George W. Bush still stirs resentment among some Republican lawmakers, despite an independent commission's finding that the Constellation program was unsustainable.
Any successful Mars trip must include foreign partners, notably China, the report said. That will require a softening of attitudes in Congress, which views China with such deep suspicion that it has barred NASA from participating in bilateral activities with the Chinese.
There's also the issue of cost at a time of broad belt-tightening and muted public support for ramped-up spending on space exploration.
The National Research Council report does not call for specific funding levels, but warns that any mission beyond lunar space is impossible without significant budget increases over time.
And "that commitment cannot change direction election after election," said Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor who co-chaired the committee. "Our elected leaders are the critical enablers of the nation's investment in human spaceflight, and only they can assure that the leadership, personnel, governance, and resources are in place in our human exploration program."
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who had called for the study, said he was pleased with its conclusions.
"This is affirmation that a mission to Mars is a go," he said. "But as the report points out, we'll have to give NASA sufficient resources to get this done."
The report explored three different "pathways" to demonstrate what sort of trade-offs might be required regarding affordability, schedule, risk, and the frequency of missions to intermediate destinations.
One would take astronauts to an asteroid that's been redirected to lunar orbit, then jump to the moons of Mars before landing on the Martian surface. The second would land astronauts on the moon and build a lunar outpost for an eventual trip to the Red Planet. The third would involve a combination of destinations, including the moon and an asteroid, before reaching Mars.
"All the pathways culminate in landing on the surface of Mars -- which is the most challenging yet technically feasible destination -- and have anywhere between three and six steps that include some combination of missions to asteroids, the moon, and Martian moons," according to the committee.
Each poses its own risks and benefits. The third pathway, for example, would carry less risk than the first two because of the extra steps involved, but it also would take longer to reach Mars.
NASA already is spending billions on a mission to land astronauts on Mars in the 2030s. The stepping-stone approach would include first landing on an asteroid that's been redirected into the moon's orbit, a plan that faces skepticism from some Capitol Hill lawmakers who would rather return to the moon itself.
"NASA has made significant progress on many key elements that will be needed to reach Mars, and we continue on this path in collaboration with industry and other nations," according to an agency statement. "We intend to thoroughly review the report and all of its recommendations."
The National Research Council report does not endorse a specific path to Mars but does lay out a set of principles leaders should follow to reach a mutual decision.
It concludes that a "return to extended surface operations on the moon would make significant contributions to a strategy ultimately aimed at landing people on Mars, and... would also likely provide a broad array of opportunities for international and commercial cooperation."
GOP Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said the report is further proof the Obama administration's plan to redirect an asteroid is a misguided mission that would divert resources from better ways of reaching Mars.
"This is a mission without a realistic budget, without a destination and without a certain launch date," he said.
The analysis also identifies 10 "high-priority capabilities" that must be developed for such a complex mission, including in-space propulsion, radiation safety, and entry, descent and landing on Mars.
Daniels said he hopes the report provides a spark of realism.
"Do you want to go Mars or don't you?" he asked. "And if you do, (it means) a very different way of doing business, which will require many actors, public and private."
A National Research Council report recommends 10 "high-priority capabilities" that must be developed for a successful mission to Mars.
-- Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing
-- Radiation safety
-- In-space propulsion and power
-- Heavy-lift launch vehicles
-- Planetary ascent propulsion
-- Environmental control and life support system
-- Extravehicular activity suits.
-- Crew health.
-- In-situ resource utilization (using the Martian atmosphere as raw material)