Congress has set NASA the goal of a manned Mars mission, but the space agency will need to first practice with a trip to the moon and that costs money the government doesn’t want to pay.
During the height of the space race with the former Soviet Union, the United States spent about 4 percent of the national budget on NASA, but now the agency is rationed to a mere 0.5 percent.
That kind of funding makes deep space exploration really hard, which is why the House Scientific Committee hosted a committee hearing this week to discuss the agency’s long-term plans.
Several experts, including two former Apollo astronauts, told the Congressional committee the space agency needed more money, but lawmakers didn’t want to hear it.
NASA has been working on building the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, both designed for long haul deep space missions, since 2004, but needs additional funding to fly astronauts in the spacecraft.
The space agency has no budget to take advantage of the spacecraft once it’s completed, as Tom Stafford, a four-time astronaut who commanded the Apollo 10 told Congress, according to an Ars Technica report.
“We certainly need the SLS, but equally we need a space program designed to make good use of it.”
That may be one reason NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot circulated a memo this week asking agency employees to brainstorm ways to put astronauts on the first SLS test flight to lunar orbit, according to Time.
“I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space.”
Many of the problems associated with human space flight center around a proper budget and that’s something NASA has been struggling with since the mid-1970’s.
During the Congressional hearing this week Tom Young, a past director of Goddard Spaceflight Center, told representatives that if they continue to fund NASA with mere 0.5 percent of the budget they’d be disappointed with the results, according to Ars Technica.
“You’ll all be saying what a disappointing decade we’ve had.”
NASA receives some $19 billion annually and spends about half that on human space flight; $5 billion every year goes to operating the International Space Station, and another $4 billion on exploration, mostly building the SLS and Orion.
One way to bring down NASA costs is to abandon the International Space Station and transfer the orbital lab to private commercial control, something the agency is already exploring.
Given the number of commercial companies gearing up for the cis-lunar economy developing in orbit the government might also be able to save cash by contracting out spaceflights, an idea floated by President Trump.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is working to build a reusable heavy lift rocket capable of transporting astronauts, and future colonists, to Mars. He wants to establish the first off-world colony and make humanity a multi-world species.
The United Launch Alliance, a Boeing and Lockheed Martin partnership, is also developing a reusable rocket with the idea of recycling the upper stage known as ACES.
The catch, of course, is that neither private rocket is expected to be completed on deadline and in the meantime NASA has to fork over money to Russia to boost astronauts into space on the country’s Soyuz rocket.
After the space shuttle fleet was decommissioned in 2011, Russia jacked up the cost of seats on Soyuz by some 372 percent, digging further into NASA’s budget.
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[Featured Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]