With the launch of a second orbital lab and plans for a manned moon mission, China is quickly becoming a major player in space while NASA continues to struggle with funding for a Mars expedition.
Work continues on NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule, but the agency has so far been unable to secure funding for any mission past 2020, Mars Exploration Program director Jim Watzin told SpaceNews.
“Somewhat disappointingly, we are still in a situation where we have no missions beyond 2020 on the books that are approved or budgeted. It’s a difficult environment to get new missions into the program right now, and so we continue to work hard to try to build the advocacy necessary to get some missions.”
China continues to ramp up funding for its space program, and private startup companies like Expace are preparing to compete with SpaceX and Boeing while NASA continues to struggle for access to federal funds.
Elon Musk’s recent recently unveiled plan to establish a human colony on Mars and make mankind a multiplanet species may have fired up the public’s imagination, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a solid dollar value.
Since the 1970s, NASA has struggled for funds and now the space agency has plans to abandon the International Space Station so it can divert the money it does have towards a manned Mars mission.
Meanwhile, China is gearing up to dominate the space race. The country just launched its second space station into orbit, switched on the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, and laid plans for a lunar landing while NASA has abandoned the possibility of another visit to the moon.
The first Chinese space station, the Tiangong-1, is scheduled to plummet uncontrollably to Earth sometime in 2017.
China has begun construction on a super heavy rocket designed to carry cargo and crew to the lunar surface. The Long March (LM-9) rocket will be in the same weight class as NASA’s SLS and will be capable of carrying 140 tons of cargo into low-Earth orbit with three booster stages.
The rocket is expected to launch sometime between 2025 and 2030 with a manned moon mission planned for 2030 to 2035. That’s about the same time frame NASA has for a manned Mars mission, but it’s far from clear that the space agency will have enough funding to reach the deadline.
A lot depends on who becomes the next president. Hillary Clinton seems to support an expanded NASA while Donald Trump can’t seem to decide on his position, but neither candidate spent even a moment discussing their space policy during the most recent presidential debate.
Whoever wins the White House will be forced to deal with the current state of NASA and make big decisions that could alter the agency’s long-term goals, PoliSpace founder Jim Muncy told The Verge.
“Both of them are going to confront the same reality if they’re elected. And the same reality is that the program of record doesn’t fit inside any reasonably projected long-term budget.”
NASA’s plan for a Journey to Mars is missing a timetable to get humans to the red planet, suitable habitats to keep them alive once they get there, landers capable of transporting them to the surface, and more.
There does seem to be broad support for NASA in Congress and that may be enough to keep funding for a manned Mars mission flowing, Planetary Society space policy director Casey Drier told The Verge.
“One thing you do see is multiple statements in support of NASA’s major hardware programs. SLS and Orion are likely to continue, because you have a broad amount of support from people in Congress who are in a position to keep them going.”
[Featured Image by 3DSculptor/iStock]