NASA faces a financial crisis and does not have the technological means or funding to follow through with its goal of landing astronauts on Mars by mid-2030s, a leading astronomer told lawmakers this week.
Steven M. Squyers, an astronomy professor at Cornell, said Congress should not dictate new milestones for space exploration without first supplementing the space agency's shrinking budget.
"NASA is being asked to do too much with too little," Mr. Squyers said, pointing to international partnerships as a possible solution to NASA's limited funding.
Mr. Squyres was among several scientists and space experts who gathered before the Science, Space and Technology House Committee Tuesday afternoon to discuss possible next steps on a possible manned mission to Mars.
Space Subcommittee chairman Steven Palazzo, Mississippi Republican, stressed the need for stability in NASA's budget and goals and pointed to their current work under the Authorization Act of 2010 on a new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) and a new crew capsule, Orion, to take astronauts further in space.
President George W. Bush outlines a longterm goal for the U.S. space program in 2004 that included a manned mission to Mars. NASA officials later suggested that such a mission could be undertaken by 2037, at a cost of $11 billion. But the private experts testifying before the House panel this week were divided over what America's next steps in space should be.
Louis Friedman of the Keck Institute for Space Studies Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study said NASA should focus on an "asteroid retrieval mission" since that is "the direct and only sustainable way to Mars." A robot would capture a small near-Earth asteroid (about 25 feet in diameter and weighting 1.5 million pounds) and re-direct it near the moon.
Paul Spudis, a senior staff scientist at the NASA-funded Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, said going back to the moon would be the next logical step for America in space. The moon, Mr. Spudis argued, is closer and offers rich resources such as near-permanent sunlight and water.
NASA's current work on Mars involves the space rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars last August and recently drilled into a Martian rock and found evidence of past "environmental conditions favorable for microbial life."
At a recent Washington, D.C. conference called "Humans 2 Mars Summit," NASA chief Charles Bolden said getting to Mars is a second opportunity for America to lead in space exploration. American astronauts were the first to land on the moon in 1969.
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