Astronaut Buzz Aldrin has made it clear that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) cannot maintain funding the International Space Station (ISS) and be at the forefront of deploying manned missions to Mars at the same time. The Apollo 11 astronaut told a conference audience in Washington that there are ways that the ISS can continue operating and Mars missions can be launched, but NASA could not afford to do both. He insisted that NASA had to either “retire” the ISS or turn it over to other agencies and/or organizations so as to allow the space agency to concentrate its funds and efforts on Mars.
Space reported this week that Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the Moon, said that, while speaking at the 2017 Humans To Mars conference in Washington, D.C., on May 9, NASA simply could not afford to continue subsidizing the ISS and move forward with what he sees as more important Mars missions in the near future.
“We must retire the ISS as soon as possible. We simply cannot afford $3.5 billion a year of that cost.”
As it stands, NASA plans to continue funding the ISS at least until 2024. The Obama administration extended the American portion of the contract to keep the space station operational in 2014 (per The Washington Post), adding four more years to the agreement that would have expired in 2020. The United States, through NASA, currently shoulders most of the ISS’ annual budget, and that eats up over one-sixth of NASA’s annual $17 billion budget. Aldrin insists the money should be spent on getting humanity to Mars.
According to the 87-year-old Aldrin, who has advocated an aggressive Mars mission policy for years, NASA should begin handing over operations on board the ISS and other Low Earth Orbit (LEO) activities to private sector organizations and companies. According to Space, the agency has been doing so, awarding contracts in recent years to companies such as SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Boeing that commission the private enterprises to ferry cargo and crew to and from the ISS. But Aldrin’s vision sees those same entities (and others) as expanding humanity’s LEO outposts, even building other space stations to orbit the Earth.
According to the Daily Mail, NASA has been proactively implementing plans for increased private sector involvement in space operations since 2014, apparently heeding the advice of a National Research Council (NRC) report issued in June 2014 that cautioned NASA that it was “doomed to fail” if something was not done to alter its then current plans on reaching Mars.
Aldrin said at the conference that the next step in getting to Mars — with the ultimate goal being to colonize the Red Planet — would be the creation of what he refers to as “cyclers,” durable spacecraft designed to move between two destinations in an efficient delivery circuit conveying people and cargo back and forth.
The astronaut said that the optimal commercial space station would be constructed at an orbit to ensure greater cooperation with China, which has plans to have its own space station operational by 2022. The “cyclers,” which should be built for longevity, would become the “foundation for human transportation,” he said.
Aldrin’s insistence on a cooperative space relationship with China is at odds with current U.S. space policy, where, since 2011, it has been illegal for NASA and/or the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to work with or share technological information with the Chinese.
Aldrin’s vision foresees international cooperation for the next steps toward venturing to Mars. This would involve an international lunar base (a project already being discussed between the European Space Agency and China) where technologies could be developed and employed to launch the first Mars mission. Here, a second set of long-distance “cyclers” would be constructed and deployed for the exploration, colonization, and the continued maintenance of a human bridgehead and colony on the Red Planet.
The astronaut said that colonizing could begin in the 2030s.
“Let’s be certain that we’ve developed a sustainable plan to stay on Mars,” he said. “No flags and footprints this time.”
The push outward into the Solar System has only gotten as far as the Moon, as far as manned exploration is concerned. And there is indeed undisturbed footprints and an American flag on its dusty surface. The last man to set foot on the Moon was astronaut Gene Cernan, who did so as a member of the Apollo 17 lunar mission in 1972.
The ISS is currently funded for operations through 2024, when Rocosmos, Russia’s space agency, said, according to a 2015 article in Space News, it will no longer participate and take its two station modules with it when the last cosmonaut departs. If further funding is denied the ISS, the station is designed to deorbit and fall back to Earth at a later date.
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