NASA Might Not Be Able To Afford Manned Mars Mission After All, Says Human Spaceflight Chief

One of NASA's loftiest goals in recent years has been to launch a manned Mars mission, and those plans had recently gotten the approval of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who has been quoted as saying he wants "American boots" on the Red Planet. But a new statement from one of the space agency's high-ranking officers suggests that there may be some obstacles in the way of such a mission, not the least of these being a lack of budget.

A report from Ars Technica took a look at Wednesday's meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, where NASA chief of human spaceflight William H. Gerstenmaier appeared to admit that his agency might not have the funds required to launch a crewed mission to the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s, as originally hoped.

"I can't put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is the other piece is, at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don't have the surface systems available for Mars," said Gerstenmaier, fielding a question about NASA's plans for a manned Mars mission

"And that entry, descent and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars."
As Ars Technica recalled, former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden had been hyping the new Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft as the tools we need to launch a crewed mission to Mars within the next 15 to 20 years or so. Budget wasn't mentioned as a potential roadblock, as mere increases for inflation were the only things NASA had to worry about as it continued its plans to send people off on a manned Mars mission. Still, there were lots of doubters who suggested that NASA might not be able to get things done, both in terms of planning and in terms of budget.

NASA chief of human spaceflight Bill Gerstenmaier recently expressed his doubts that the agency has the budget to fund a manned Mars mission. [Image by Win McNamee/Getty Images]

In a statement released in 2014, NASA responded to comments from the National Research Council that warned the agency about the challenges it may face as it plans a manned journey to Mars.

"NASA has made significant progress on many key elements that will be needed to reach Mars, and we continue on this path in collaboration with industry and other nations. We intend to thoroughly review the report and all of its recommendations."
As further noted by Ars Technica, NASA has seemingly come to terms with the reality that both the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft were very costly to manufacture, which means the space agency hasn't really gotten down to designing rovers or other vehicles that could land on the Martian surface or ascend from it.
With Gerstenmaier's remarks hinting that a manned Mars mission might not be financially feasible, the NASA official once again brought up the possibility of a consolation mission, where the agency's astronauts would instead make a moon landing. This, Ars wrote, was previously suggested by former President George W. Bush, but ultimately canceled by his successor, Barack Obama.
"If we find out there's water on the moon, and we want to do more extensive operations on the moon to go explore that, we have the ability with Deep Space Gateway to support an extensive moon surface program. If we want to stay focused more toward Mars we can keep that."
Although Gerstenmaier seems to be fine with the consolation prize of a moon landing, there are other entities out there who are still dead-set on making a manned Mars mission a reality, such as Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. According to Futurism, Musk had recently announced that he may be giving an update on SpaceX's planned Mars mission in September, as part of his appearance at the International Astronautical Congress. As noted, Musk's current targets include 2018 for an unmanned mission, and 2025 for a manned mission to the Red Planet.

[Featured Image by NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Cornell University via Getty Images]