Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space Discusses Path to Mars

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Publication date: 
18 April 2014

The Subcommittee on Science and Space of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held an April 9 hearing to discuss NASA’s exploration strategy, international cooperation in space and commercial space efforts as the U.S. prepares for an eventual human mission to Mars.  Space continues to be a model for successful international cooperation though it has recently become challenging due to tense U.S.-Russia relations and a growing Chinese space program.  NASA is studying a variety of intermediate mission options in preparation for human missions to Mars.  The intermediary steps would allow NASA to develop technology needed for the longer duration flight that a Mars mission would require. 

Subcommittee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) opened the hearing outlining how technologies developed for use in space have benefited life on Earth.  He hoped to generate increased public excitement for the space program while acknowledging that there are questions about whether the tensions with Russia will affect the space programThe exploration of space, he stated, was the one area where countries have historically worked together even during times of geopolitical conflict.   

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) stood in for Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-TX) during this hearing.  Rubio emphasized NASA’s mission and the implications of current geopolitical issues on the space program but also the need for a “clear mission with a roadmap and timeline outlining how that mission will be accomplished.”  He recommended that NASA reduce costs by “reexamining its many underused and outdated facilities and properties.”  Lastly he stressed that “the United States should never have to buy tickets to space” as he questioned whether we should be paying a nation and its leader “with whom we have strong disagreements.”   

Four witnesses testified.  William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA spoke about NASA’s space exploration architecture which is aimed at long-term human exploration of the solar system.  He described the near-term strategy to utilize the International Space Station (ISS) for research and technology demonstrations, partner with commercial groups, work in cooperation with NASA Directorates to understand exploration destinations and move further into space using the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System.  The ISS allows NASA improved understanding about how we live and work in space, the ability to develop commercial transportation, and a means for NASA to conduct research and development in Earth, space, and life sciences.  Gerstenmaier provided an update on the status of many of NASA’s technological developments and additionally discussed the Asteroid Redirect Mission as a part of the overall plan for human space exploration. 

“Over time, we will move beyond conducting limited-duration forays to distant destinations and begin to lay the groundwork to establish outposts, build settlements, and utilize in situ resources as we expand the reach of humanity. The key to realizing this goal will be to channel all of the factors that have enabled our space achievements to date in a way that will ensure a sustainable foundation on which future generations can continue to build,” stated Gerstenmaier. 

Susan Eisenhower, Chairman Emeritus of the Eisenhower Institute and President of the Eisenhower Group, Inc. discussed near- and long-term goals pertaining to international partnerships.  As a former NASA Advisory Council Member, she provided the subcommittee with her thoughts on successful international cooperation as it relates to current tensions between U.S. and Russia and to NASA’s announcement that it will suspend “the majority of its ongoing engagements” with Russia.  “Sweeping limitations of this kind are a mistake,” she stated as she summarized the history of U.S. - Russia partnerships in space.  She also cautioned against suspending cooperation with Russia since “it could backfire.”  Instead, she thought that space cooperation should “be exempt from sanctions” and that “linkages between geopolitical crises and space should be avoided in favor of more direct ways to impose sanctions.”

Leroy Chiao, Former NASA Astronaut; Special Advisor for Human Spaceflight at the Space Foundation; and Chairman of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute User Panel described the benefits of human spaceflight including national prestige and inspiration of the next generation.  He advocated for “strong, bipartisan leadership [which] is needed to sustain [space] programs across administrations.”  The challenge of NASA’s flat budget has led the agency to attempt to plan credible programs within a budget framework that then leads to changing proposals and “settling recently on an asteroid-redirect mission.”  “The first step to plan ‘from here to Mars’ is to ensure that the budget is sufficient to support the program.  The realistic, sustainable funding level for B-LEO [Beyond Low Earth Orbit] should be determined and then the program scoped accordingly.  If we cannot adequately support a credible B-LEO program politically and financially, then we should not attempt it,” stated Chiao. 

Jeffrey Manber, Managing Director of NanoRacks, LLC. discussed the company’s development of a customer base for the national laboratory onboard the ISS.  He offered his thoughts on the development of the market for Low Earth Orbit noting that commercial organizations and space agencies are competitors and that the Chinese Space Agency markets its space services to the whole space community including U.S. commercial competitors.  “The space station is showing us that incorporating commercial utilization into exploration programs will indeed have huge benefits,” Manber concluded. 

Following the testimony, Nelson began by noting that the President’s budget recommended that operation of the ISS be extended to 2024 and asked Gerstenmaier whether the Asteroid Redirect Mission is doable, does not preclude a lunar mission, and gets the U.S. to Mars in the 2030s.  Gerstenmaier responded that “it’s going to require a significant amount of new investment on NASA’s part.”        

Senator Mark Rubio (R-FL) followed with further questions about continuing to create capabilities aimed at landing on Mars in 2030.  He cautiously addressed international cooperation in space, particularly following Eisenhower’s testimony.  Lastly, Rubio was interested in reinvigorating public interest in space and asked Gerstenmaier to offer suggestions which included getting high school students interested in space.  Chiao stated that “the key to stoking public interest is flying more and flying sooner.”

Nelson ended the hearing stating that the subcommittee would like to support research and development particularly at the ISS “if we can get over the problems of the sequester.”