Going to Mars won’t be easy, “even if we sent Matt Damon,” star of the 2015 film The Martian, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) quipped at a Tuesday forum about deep-space exploration held in Washington, D. C.
But the venture is worth doing, helps unify and propel space exploration going forward, and is codified in the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 (S. 442) that President Donald Trump signed into law in March, said Cruz, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness. He sponsored the legislation, which calls for a human exploration road map that includes “the long-term goal of human missions near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s.”
Although Cruz said that NASA space exploration should not come at the expense of the agency’s Earth science missions, he said Earth science is not central to NASA. “There are a host of agencies that do science research, that have a science focus. That’s not NASA’s central mission,” he said. “Space exploration is NASA’s central mission, and I certainly am doing everything I can to encourage as many resources as possible [and] as much of NASA’s leadership to be focused on exploration.”
The forum, sponsored by the Atlantic magazine, focused on the issues of sending astronauts to deep space, including Mars; efforts to support commercial space endeavors; the challenge of retaining American leadership in space; and bipartisan support for space exploration.
Bipartisanship on Space Exploration
In an intensely partisan environment, Cruz said that there is bipartisan commitment to American leadership in space. “There are not many issues to which there is bipartisan commitment, but that’s one, and I think that’s very good for those of us who care about continuing to explore space.”
That bipartisan congressional and administration support stems in part from people looking at the agency as a symbol of leadership for the country, said Robert Lightfoot, acting administrator of NASA.
“It’s written in our hearts: We want to explore, we want to push forward. And I think NASA is probably the symbolic piece of that,” he said.
Another reason for agency support is that NASA is “basically changing textbooks,” he noted. The pursuit of knowledge and scientific discovery intrigues people and is “different than some of the other things most people talk about in government,” Lightfoot added.
The authorization act, he said, also provides a sense of constancy of support for the agency and for long-term projects such as the International Space Station and efforts to journey to Mars. NASA fared well in the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget, signed into law on 5 May, and the agency hopes for steady support in the FY 2018 budget that the administration plans to release next week.
Getting to Mars calls for a number of intermediate steps that NASA has outlined. These include using the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit as a “local” proving ground to learn about things such as needed technologies and the impacts of a microgravity environment on the human body and then building infrastructure in the vicinity of the Moon to test and improve technologies.
But Lightfoot emphasized that the momentum is there to go to Mars. “Can you imagine the first steps on Mars?” Lightfoot asked. He said it could be a “civilization level change event for us,” just as the first steps on the Moon were. “I tell my guys all the time, ‘You’re making history. You just don’t know it.’”
A Unique Moment
Ellen Stofan, former chief scientist for NASA, said at the forum that now is “a unique moment” for pushing on toward Mars. “We know where we want to go, we understand the path of technologies that we need to get there, we think there’s an affordable plan…and I think you’ve got broad public support.”
Robert Zubrin agreed at the forum that Mars should be the destination. “Mars is where the science is, Mars is where the challenge is, Mars is where the future is,” said Zubrin, founder and president of the Mars Society, a Lakewood, Colo.–based organization that promotes the exploration and settlement of Mars.
However, he complained that “what we have right now is just drift, it is not a program,” and he questioned the necessity of some intermediate steps, such as a lunar-orbiting space station, to get to Mars. “Right now, NASA is not spending money to do things. It is doing things to spend money,” Zubrin said. “We need leadership at the top of government and at the top of NASA, and we don’t have it right now.”
Support for the Space Industry
At the forum, Cruz announced that his Senate committee will hold a hearing on 23 May to revisit the Outer Space Treaty to see how the treaty can help expand commerce and settlement in space. The treaty, which entered into force 50 years ago, provides the basic framework for international space law.
He predicted that the first trillionaire would be a person in the space exploration world “who invests and makes discoveries in space that we cannot even envision.”
The senator tied American efforts in space not just to the spirit of exploration and economic opportunities but also to national security and the safety of the nation’s satellites that GPS and other critical technologies rely on.
“The development other countries are making in space weaponry to take out our communication equipment is truly chilling,” he said. “Some of the classified briefings would take your breath away at the potential threats we face.” He called for “serious investments” to address that vulnerability.
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer