NASA needs a goal, a destination and objective upon which to focus, else it is going nowhere. That's effectively what US Sentators told the space agency on Wednesday. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden disagreed.
...Bolden said after the hearing that critics were confusing the lack of a specific destination or timetable with the lack of a goal.
NASA has a goal, a big one, Bolden said. It's going to Mars. But Bolden added that getting astronauts to Mars is more than a decade away and NASA needs to upgrade its technology or else it never will get there.
"We want to go to Mars," Bolden said. "We can't get there right now because we don't have the technology to do it."
That is why he said the new NASA plan invests in developing in-orbit fuel depots, inflatable spaceship parts, new types of propulsion and other technology.
Bolden would not even guess when NASA would try to send astronauts to Mars, but said the technology NASA is studying could cut the trip to the Red Planet from three months to a matter of days if it works.
"We're oh-so-close, but we've got to invest in that technology," Bolden testified.
Bolden is correct; the amount of technological, economic and industrial growth that resulted from our push to the Moon resulted in many of the marvelous advances in science that have revolutionized many areas in the public and private sectors.
Another goal -- one that has been "out there" for a while and constantly revived -- is the desire to bring back samples of Martian life for study on Earth:
"At this particular time, I can't provide a date certain for the first human mission to Mars," Bolden told the Senate's science and space subcommittee. However, Bolden recently told the Houston Chronicle's editorial board it was his "personal vision" to put NASA on a path toward a human Mars landing sometime in the 2030s.
That's the kind of talk that could energize further robotic exploration of Mars, including two-way trips. "Non-human sample return would feed very directly into the technology for human exploration," Conley told me.
If Bolden's vision holds true, a lot of questions will have to be answered in the next 20 years. Conley said one biggie is how safe astronauts would be on the Red Planet. A report from the National Research Council, titled "Safe on Mars," outlined a whole list of potential nasties ranging from alien microbes to toxic hexavalent chromium. Some of those risks can be assessed only by up-close analysis of Martian samples, Conley said.
Of course, bringing back samples of extra-terrestrial life has its own inherent risks, as speculated in science fiction fare such The Andromeda Strain, Alien and -- perhaps most appropriate of the three -- Species. From the article cited above by Alan Boyles on MSNBC,
When fresh Martian material is brought back - either by astronauts or by special-delivery robots - it'll have to be contained much more tightly than the Apollo moonwalkers were 40 years ago. The way Rummel sees it, our planet was lucky that the moon was most sincerely dead. "If there had been anything alive on the moon at that time, it would be alive here now," he said. (On the flip side, we may have left something alive on the moon.)
NASA's plans call for Martian samples to be handled as if they were top-priority biohazards, in a containment facility equivalent to a Biosafety Level 4 lab.
Ideally, such a lab would also have the contact numbers for Michael Madsen and Sigourney Weaver.
This is an Open Thread.