The perspectives for landing humans on Mars in the next few decades appear to be bleak, since NASA’s current budget simply can’t cover the expenses for a manned mission to the Red Planet, according to the space agency’s human exploration and operation chief.
“I can’t put a date on humans on Mars,” Will Gerstenmaier said Wednesday at a propulsion and energy forum in the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The reason, he said, is that “at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars. And that entry, descent, and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.”
While insufficient funding looms over plans to get first explorers on the Mars surface by early 2030s, Gerstenmaier said NASA is “marching towards schedules” on its major projects, such as unmanned Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and the manned flight of EM-2.
The two missions are expected to test the deep-space Orion Spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in 2019 and 2022, respectively, which will allow NASA to develop the capabilities for the next stop at Mars, including a construction of a spaceport in lunar orbit, Deep Space Gateway.
“We’re essentially at this point building capabilities that enable multiple destinations,” Gerstenmaier said.
“If we find out that there is water on the Moon and we want to do more extensive human operations on the Moon to explore that, we have the ability with Deep Space Gateway to support an extensive Moon surface program,” he added.
Gerstenmaier also talked of NASA’s “fiscal realism,” adding that teaming up with the commercial sector will be essential for future space travel.
“For the first time NASA doesn’t have to do everything itself,” Gerstenmaier said, noting that it’s an “exciting time” to cooperate with commercial groups to share and exchange data.
“I look at NASA kind of as an orchestrator now, where we take the best that is available from industry,” he added.
In the meantime, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has pushed its deadline for its unmanned mission to Mars to 2020, having abandoned the initial plan to send a probe as soon as 2018.