Space has been back on the radar lately for the White House—an uncharacteristic situation in an administration that has not been known for any full-throttle interest in the realm beyond Earth.
In an October 11 CNN opinion piece, Pres. Barack Obama underscored his belief that the U.S. will take the giant leap to Mars. “We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space,” Obama wrote, “sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”
The plan was not new—Obama first announced his intention to explore the Red Planet in 2010, and NASA has been pursuing the necessary technology ever since. But the opinion piece suggests the president is thinking about his legacy in space—particularly at a time when private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX are pursuing Mars exploration plans of their own.
The CNN editorial popped up the same day as a White House space update, “Making Human Settlement of Space a Reality,” came out from John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, along with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. It announced two new NASA initiatives that build on the president’s vision to enable humans to sustainably live and work in space. One has several select companies developing habitation systems able to sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration, deep-space missions such as a trip to Mars. The other new plan would begin to allow companies to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station.
Then there was Obama’s guest editing of Wired magazine’s November issue, in which he said his favorite movie last year was The Martian. He added that he is “predisposed” to admire any movie where Americans dare the odds and motivate the world. “But what really grabbed me about the film is that it shows how humans—through our ingenuity, our commitment to fact and reason, and ultimately our faith in each other—can science the heck out of just about any problem,” Obama wrote in an introduction to the issue.
And on October 13 Obama signed an executive order—“Coordinating Efforts to Prepare the Nation for Space Weather Events”—to make sure power grids, satellites and other vital national interests are equipped to withstand an influx of charged particles sent our way by periodic flare-ups on the sun.
All of this was prelude to Obama’s own voyage that same day to Carnegie Mellon University for The White House Frontiers Conference. Among the science and technology themes on the agenda were interplanetary space exploration and the thriving U.S. space industry. Up for discussion: How will American investments in science and technology help us settle “the final frontier”—space?
The president’s reiterated interest in Earth’s planetary neighbor is marvelous rocket rumble to the ears of Chris Carberry, CEO of Explore Mars, a humans-on-Mars advocacy group. He sees Obama’s initiative as a way to assure the public that Red Planet exploration is firmly in NASA’s sights—there is a caveat, however. “The next administration and Congress will need to make a lot of important decisions,” Carberry says, “with regards to mission architecture options, precursor missions and budget in the next couple of years,” if landing humans on Mars is to become reality anytime soon.
Obama and Mars are not strangers. In 2010 he called on NASA to head for the Red Planet, have astronauts orbit that world by the mid-2030s and return them safely to Earth. “And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it,” he said in a 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center. So why the announcement now? “It is a reminder that six years ago he set NASA on the journey to Mars…and that they are still going. He hasn’t changed his mind,” says John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. “As his administration draws to a close, it is his summing up of what he believes his record has been.”
Yet whether Mars will truly be part of the president’s space legacy remains to be seen, says Marcia Smith, founder and editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com. “I think Obama’s civil space legacy will be his embrace of commercial partnerships, not humans to Mars,” she says. Ultimately Obama’s legacy depends in large part on what the next administration does, Smith says. If it continues the Mars exploration program he set up, Obama will likely receive kudos, whether or not it is deserved, she says. NASA’s big and yet-to-fly booster, the Space Launch System and the Orion piloted spacecraft—key elements of NASA’s journey to Mars—exist today because of Congress, not the president. “But he did extend the International Space Station to 2024,” she says, “providing more years to study human reaction to spaceflight.” On the other hand, if the next president cancels the drive for Mars—the way Obama canceled “The Vision for Space Exploration,” which targeted further human exploration of the moon, as blueprinted in 2004 by Pres. George W. Bush—“it will be just another footnote in history.”
Although the overall Obama space scorecard is checkered, the area of commercial partnerships is where his administration shines, Smith says. During the past eight years NASA has pursued unprecedented private partnerships that should have commercial companies flying NASA astronauts to and from the space station in the near future. The ultimate fate of this program and the broad range of other public-private partnerships initiated under the administration is still unfolding, but it is clear that “a new paradigm” has emerged during Obama’s years in the Oval Office. Whether it is sustained by the next president “will be interesting to watch,” she concludes.
Space policy expert Logsdon senses “uncertainties” surrounding the next administration’s handling of the nation’s space agenda. “Whether to put the moon back in is the biggest one,” says Logsdon, pointing to the Bush administration’s canceled plans. Such a goal is something that European Space Agency Director General Johann-Dietrich Wörner has been campaigning for what has been tagged as an international “moon village.” “My biggest disappointment with Obama,” Logsdon continues, “is lack of international leadership, not reaching out as the U.S. president to the international community and saying ‘let’s do this together”—stepping out globally beyond low Earth orbit.
Another transition issue, according to Logsdon, is whether the next U.S. chief executive makes explicit an invitation to other countries to join America in planning exploration in general, and whether China is included in that goal. Doing so could make the difference in ultimately reaching the Red Planet or not. In the past 40 years the U.S. space program has received less than 1 percent of the federal spending budget, Logsdon says. “And I see nothing that will change that on the horizon.”
Bottom line to all this boosterism: If NASA truly wants to make it to Mars, it will probably need to enlist international technology, expertise and funding.