Science 4 min read

Sorry, Mars Fans--NASA Can't Afford the Trip

Dotted Yeti |

Dotted Yeti |

NASA’s human spaceflight director dropped a bombshell, saying they can’t afford a crewed mission to Mars. The agency may instead focus on its Moon plans.

For five years now (Aug 6 2012-2017), the Curiosity rover has been exploring and studying Mars up close and personal.

To celebrate Curiosity’s 5th anniversary, NASA posted a series of videos, highlighting the important moments of its Martian exploration.

Now NASA says it can't afford a crewed mission to Mars.Click To Tweet

If the mission and special occasion hint at a bright future ahead for Mars and space exploration in general, Curiosity won’t be joined by human explorers anytime soon, at least, not from NASA.

Sorry, Can’t Afford the Price tag to Mars!

NASA’s made its inspiring Journey to Mars a priority of its space program and, for years, has been developing the capabilities that enable landing humans on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.

NASA has regularly communicated its Mars plans, inspiring many people and raising high hopes. A dream which seemed even more feasible by the recent innovations in space technologies and NASA’s own projects, including the new Orion Spacecraft and the new SLS rocket.

orion spacecraft
Orion Spacecraft |

However, with budget cuts everywhere except defense spending in the U.S., perhaps we should have seen this coming. NASA blatantly cited budgetary reasons for why the Martian journey will not happen anytime soon.

The news broke last month when, at a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, William H. Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight, said the agency lacked the budget to carry on its Martian journey.

… through the 2030s, I can’t put a date on humans on Mars,said Gerstenmaier.

And the reason really is … at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars.

The Moon Instead?

Despite our surprise, naysayers had already expressed doubts about the agency’s Martian plan.

In a report entitled, “Pathways to Exploration”, the National Research Council heavily criticized NASA’s strategy for landing crews on Mars, as, at that time, the funds didn’t align with the work needed and the timeframe.

In a direct reaction to NRC’s report, NASA released a statement where it revalidated its plan and reassured it would continue the path goal toward which it had allegedly made significant progress.

It’s only now that NASA has openly admitted it can’t afford building the spacecraft necessary to land on and ascend from Mars because the Space Launch System (SLS rocket) and Orion spacecraft design and testing had already taken up much of the budget.

SLS rocket with Orion Spacecraft |

The U.S. Congress allocated NASA $19.5 billion USD as a budget for NASA’s 2017 fiscal year, yet the agency hasn’t specified the exact figure it needs to land crews on Mars.

Experts from within NASA have estimated the cost of a crewed mission to Mars to be $100 billion USD over 30 to 40 years, and more recent estimates take that figure up to $1 trillion USD.

Responding to questions, Gerstenmaier said sending a human mission to Mars is still a goal for the agency–it’s just not a priority anymore.

… we have the ability with Deep Space Gateway to support an extensive Moon surface program,” Gerstenmaier said. “If we want to stay focused more toward Mars we can keep that.

The Trump administration, re-launching the National Space Council, officially promised a new era of space exploration that would see “American boots get back to the moon” as well as land on Mars.

NASA seem to be letting its options open to whatever works, financially and politically speaking, but now the moon is a more feasible destination. NASA might have to settle for affording a lunar outpost and one SLS rocket flight per year.

How could private space companies like SpaceX take up the slack and land humans on Mars?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

Comments (14)
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  1. JimF October 26 at 7:02 pm GMT

    Can’t wait to get back on the moon. It’s a big rock! Well worth whatever it costs.

  2. joesmoe October 28 at 2:30 am GMT

    Technological stagnation continues. We got to the moon within a decade after making it a goal.

    What’s wrong with us now.

  3. Tobor Zinc March 28 at 2:43 pm GMT

    Elementary school’s math tell us : you can not put let’ s say 1000 ton material goods on Mars with chemical rocket(s) weight of Saturn 5 rocket was 3000 tons and neto weight 120 ton ( Apollo)…. for Mars you need nuclear power

  4. Paul Maher May 17 at 6:50 pm GMT

    I understand that NASA’s underlying mission is “to go where no man has gone before”, but they do much more than that. A handful of scientists at Langley, Los Alamos and Argonne love LENR.
    That’s Low Energy Nuclear Reactions. The US Naval Institute just issued 2nd place prize in an innovation contest. It should have come in in 1st place. 1st place must be a doosey. Of course I wouldn’t rule out Nano Crystal Electricity either, or a host of other technologies for that matter.
    NASA and the Navy are sitting upon amazing new technologies. As a matter of fact look at the collaboration between NASA and Global Energy Corporation, JWK et al in the development of 10 KW to 20 MW LENR based generators.

  5. Anjali Kulkarni May 23 at 10:42 am GMT

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this blog. I am hoping to see the same high-grade content by you later on as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities have motivated me to read more and more about space since. I hope you may like writing as well about Alyssa Carson Astronaut known as rocket woman as well.

  6. Rick Bennette July 04 at 5:23 am GMT

    In the film making industry outside of union run Hollywood and New York, it is easy to procure actors and crew who will work for nothing but a film credit. The premise being that the process is so much fun, just the participation in the project is reward enough for many people.

    My belief is this volunteer model would transcend to the Mars mission as well. Certainly, the frontier of space is exciting to many individuals; so much so, that I can’t help believing there might be many who would work for free or for a name credit.

    Not every aspect of the mission requires a degree in rocket science. There must be hundreds of positions requiring basic training that NASA could provide, and many space junkies would comprehend. This would significantly reduce the costs of any space mission, to Mars or the moon, freeing up the limited funds for use where it would be impossible to procure free services.

    It works for making films. Why not for space travel? If we are going to give up on Mars anyway, what is there to lose by trying this idea?

  7. Timothy Egoroff August 21 at 2:19 pm GMT

    they sure do know how to play the purse game, why don’t they really want a manned mars mission, they spend hundreds of trillions on black budget projects.

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  10. MR. MELODY™ November 25 at 8:41 pm GMT

    No-one has been to the Moon and nothing is going to Mars. #NAZALIES!!!!

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