A NASA journey to nowhere may be exactly what U.S. needs


Seasonal flow of water on Mars forms slopes on planets. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona.

The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) has recently announced a three-part plan which the U.S. space agency says will result in a manned spacecraft landing on the surface of Mars within the next few decades. The report, titled NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration, discusses phases of the mission which will include Earth reliant testing for human health and systems performance, a proving ground stage for validating spacecraft and crew capabilities and Earth independent testing for long-term spaceflight leading to a Mars landing. These tests will focus on how the human body fares during long-term flight missions as well as new power and communications systems. The 34-page plan notes that achieving this goal will lead to both commercial success and the “strengthening of America’s leadership on Earth and in space.”


Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX)

Unfortunately, NASA’s Mars plan hasn’t exactly inspired the hopes and dreams of members of the House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space and Technology, especially committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX). The Hill has reported that Smith decried the report as “just some real pretty photographs and some nice words.” Smith, who would go on to criticize President Obama for proposing NASA budget cuts, said that the mission to Mars was actually a “journey to nowhere” unless NASA would be able to provide a detailed final budget and a thorough schedule of deadlines.

While it is encouraging to hear that Congressman Smith is taking a position against NASA budget cuts, perhaps he should take a step back and remind himself of the benefit a scientific journey to nowhere can lead. This is not the same as a bridge to nowhere that won’t benefit anyone. Combining science, dreams of exploring space and the human imagination has been a potent fuel for American innovation for generations.

Frankly, it is also at least a little odd to hear a NASA space initiate as being criticized as a journey to nowhere. Upon hearing this quote the firs thing that jumped to mind was a long favorite scene from the Star Trek franchise, from the Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country, where Captain Kirk is ordered to return The Enterprise to dock for decommissioning. Instead he gives an order to plot a course “for the second star to the right, and straight on until morning.” While Captain Kirk is not real, Star Trek has always done a phenomenal job of capturing the wide eyed optimism of discovery. It was always about the journey, the destination was never the objective.

Over the last 50 years one of the driving forces that has captured the imagination of those who dream of space travel has been Star Trek. For some 50 years numerous scientists and engineers have dreamed and worked to bring fiction into reality. To hear a politician talk about a journey to nowhere as a useless scientific endeavor is hard to stomach. The fundamental premise that captured the imagination of so many was exploration for the sake of exploration.

Perhaps it is wrong to make too much of one comment made by Congressman Smith, but a journey to nowhere is exactly where NASA has always excelled, at least when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, NASA has been forced to accomplish more with less in recent years, and the Republican-led House space committee knows that. A committee report issued before the NASA budget hearing on October 9th noted that NASA budget proposals from the White House had been lowering consistently since 2010. In spite of this, NASA was able to accomplish a number of agency missions, including the first unmanned flight of the Orion spacecraft as well as the first successful tests of the RS-25 quad-engine core that will power Space Launch System missions.


NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden

Republican representatives have said that they’d like to increase funding for NASA and space missions, taking a somewhat friendlier tone than their Democrat counterparts who have been keen on seeing NASA’s focus switch from space exploration to earth science. However, in June, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke out against GOP-backed legislation in both the House and Senate that would cut NASA’s budget and make it difficult to implement its plan of weaning the American space program off of its reliance on Russia’s Soyuz rockets to send astronauts into space. NASA wanted to ensure it had the budget to follow through on multibillion-dollar contracts it approved with the Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) and SpaceX.

It’s unfortunate that NASA has had to operate in such a unfavorable climate, being pushed for more and more answers out of its space exploration program while suffering uncertainty in its federal funding amounts. While there is nothing wrong with expecting NASA to do the difficult work of planning, science and discovery by their very nature are unpredictable. It would be a mistake for Congress to ground NASA unless fine details on its Mars program are forthcoming. Having a goal oriented target has proven helpful for NASA, but scientific discoveries and the innovations that come therefrom are not easily or even appropriately quantifiable on a spreadsheet, business plan or budget. Historically, NASA space exploration mission objectives have led to great benefits for the American people, even when their plans and mission goals have been a little light on the technical details.

The NASA mission to send a man to the moon provides us with an excellent backdrop with which we can critique this debate. NASA was established in 1958 during the Eisenhower administration but it wasn’t until President Kennedy’s May 1961 speech before a joint session of Congress that a lunar landing by the end of the decade became an official agency goal. At that time, we were behind the Russians, then America’s greatest rival, who had already sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit the month before Kennedy’s speech. There was no grand outline at the time for the accomplishments made toward the lunar landing by Project Gemini, Project Mercury and Project Apollo. But there was a clear mandate that America had to beat the USSR in this area of technology. In 1961, it was by no means clear that we would be able to meet Kennedy’s goal or even get there before the Russians.

What started as a political moment with its basis in the Cold War, however, turned into a race that would unlock the ingenuity of scientists and engineers from all over the world for the betterment of the American society and its people. With NASA confirming the presence of water on Mars at the end of September, and popular interest in space piqued by recent Hollywood blockbusters like Interstellar and The Martian, it appears as though we have reached a great moment that will allow for us to consider our first visit to the Red Planet.


Frost avalanche on Mars. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona. Public domain.

Part of the issue at hand as to why NASA cannot, and would not, know the total budget for the Mars trip or have a perfectly detailed schedule is that the nature of NASA’s research is different than most other research and development in universities and companies across the world. Although you could call academic research “goal-oriented,” in so far as it seeks to answers a question or two for a field of science, NASA’s research is goal-oriented on a much higher level. There are technical, scientific and engineering challenges which will be encountered on the way to Mars which involve human physiology, spacecraft systems and much more, but many of those challenges are unknown today. For example, we have no idea how the human body will fare during the two to three year long mission to Mars, although we do know that prolonged space travel can weaken the bones of astronauts and cause other negative effects over time. If it turns out that special safety and habitation technologies must be produced which account for what is currently unknown, that would be a legitimate reason to adjust budgeting and project schedules. The last thing anyone, especially the astronauts that we’re sending to Mars, would want NASA to do is cut corners to try and meet a federally-mandated deadline and final project budget. The part of the mission where NASA will attempt a sustained astronaut presence on the surface of the Moon alone presents technological issues of a much greater degree than when NASA was simply focused on getting the U.S. flag to the moon by the end of the 1960s.

Rather than ask if NASA can provide a more detailed assessment of its plans, we should be asking whether or not NASA’s plans were a worthwhile investment. Again, historically, it’s clear to see that prior investments in the agency’s space travel programs has led to incredible benefits to humans on Earth, which may never have otherwise been discovered. Light-emitting diode (LED) technologies used for plant growing facilities on NASA’s space shuttle plant growth environments have led to the development of LED technologies reducing side effects in cancer patients undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments. A material developed by NASA for Viking spacecraft launched in the 1970s led to the development of rubber tires by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company which added 10,000 to the life of conventional tread tires. Heat shields developed for Apollo spacecraft led to fire-resistant reinforcement technologies for steel structures, insulating the steel for hours of additional fire protection. According to NASA, nine out of ten infant formula products sold in the U.S. today contain a nutritional enrichment ingredient developed by NASA during its efforts to use algae as a recycling agent during long-duration space travel. These innovations, and many other remarkable ones, can be perused quickly on this NASA Spinoff web site.


“Hidden Valley” lakebed deposit region on Mars. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Public domain.

The inventions developed by NASA are available for private commercialization thanks to the U.S. space agency’s technology transfer office, housed at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA inventions are disclosed to the tech transfer office, which then develops a strategy for identifying potential licensees for the innovation; the vetting process includes the determination that a company is able to successfully take an innovation into the marketplace. All of this ensures that the technologies developed either by NASA or with its help find every practical application possible and enter the consumer market more quickly. Currently, NASA offers commercial business startups no-fee access to a catalogue of NASA’s 1,200 patented technologies in fields like communications, robotics in health.

An inability to secure the proper funding levels for NASA’s mission to Mars would be disastrous and would affect the American public by holding back the next wave of NASA-sponsored innovation. It would also prove to be a blow to research at American universities, which supply much of the basic research necessary for new fields of technology. Recently, the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) announced a partnership with NASA to develop next-generation weather satellites providing improved early warning systems for extreme weather events. A grant program developed by NASA has provided Napa Valley College (NVC) with $250,000 to develop curriculum in drone and rocket technologies. Anything that impacts NASA’s funding, then, impacts both private business and academic research throughout America.

This is not the first time that NASA has proposed sending astronauts to Mars. In 1969, a plan to send Americans to Mars by the end of the 20th century was drawn up by Wernher von Braun, a German-American aerospace engineer who had been musing over plans on a Mars expedition for decades. This plan, replete with orbiting space station and lunar base construction projects, was submitted to then-President Richard Nixon in September of 1969. The plan, however, was unpopular in Congress and mainstream media outlets like The Washington Post. Nixon did end approving some less ambitious aspects of the von Braun proposal, such as the Space Shuttle program. In hindsight, given criticisms which developed in time that the Space Shuttle program was limited in its space exploration ambitions, it’s perhaps fair to say that shortsightedness during the Nixon Administration hampered NASA’s ability to maintain its leading position in space exploration, which in turn threatened American dominance in the field.

In June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a commerce, justice and science bill that would provide NASA with $18.29 billion for the 2016 fiscal year. This represents a larger budget than NASA enjoyed in 2015 but the space exploration appropriations in that bill are much lower than recommendations made by some, including the nonprofit space exploration organization The Planetary Society. A recent interview of NASA’s Charles Bolden, published by SpaceNews, spoke to the negative impacts that would be incurred if Congress couldn’t provide the funding for NASA to follow through on its contractual agreements made with private space partners to develop commercial crew space transportation capabilities.

At a time when much of the U.S. political narrative is turning around the idea of “making America great again,” properly funding NASA’s priorities to make America the first country to put a man on Mars would have to be deemed as a solid step towards maintaining American dominance in the fields of science and engineering. Given NASA’s track record, proceeding with a goal oriented trip to nowhere might be exactly what American needs. We might also realize that trip to nowhere takes us to Mars and beyond.


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Join the Discussion

20 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    October 19, 2015 06:13 pm

    If, as you say, the human element lags the most, that is only all the more reason to emphasize the human element, as that then provides the biggest jump.

  • [Avatar for A Rational Person]
    A Rational Person
    October 19, 2015 10:21 am

    [email protected],

    The problem is that right now, keeping a human alive for the entire trip to and from Mars is probably where our technology lags the most with respect to problems that need to be solved for a human-based mission to Mars to be successful.

    The longest Apollo missions lasted 12 to 12 1/2 days. A Mars mission with current propulsion technology will take several hundred days, which raises a whole host of different issues of human survivability, including long-term exposure to cosmic rays.

    As Benny has noted above, the success rate for even unmanned missions to Mars has been notoriously low. So it seems to me that the first priority with respect to Mars missions is to work on making unmanned missions more reliable.

    I also think that one of the key technologies to making human-based missions to Mars possible with a reasonable success rate will be to have artificial intelligence that is sufficiently advanced that it allows the mission to run with minimal crew involvement. Given the time lapse between earth-based mission control and a Mars mission, I think the mission will need to be able to carry its own “mission control” with it in the in the form of some type of artificial intelligence.

    I’m into the romance of space as much as anyone; I followed the manned space program avidly in the 60s and 70s.

    But, I agree with Night Writer, at this time, we need to be focusing more on unmanned missions. That’s where the biggest bang for the buck is now and where the technology is now and where the technology will probably be for the next 10 years even NASA was preparing for a mission to Mars.

  • [Avatar for Steve Brachmann]
    Steve Brachmann
    October 19, 2015 09:57 am

    @Night Writer – One of the points we try to make in this article is that manned exploration of outer space results in many more benefits than simply putting a man on the moon, or Mars. Paragraph 12 has much of the information that backs up this point, and we certainly haven’t included an exhaustive list of technologies developed at least in part by NASA, much of which was pursued to support the presence of man in outer space.

    I understand your point about Titan. I think that its similarities to Earth beg further investigation. However, it seems to me that the amount of basic and applied research supported by a Titan satellite mission would by necessity be less than the knowledge gained from the attempt to send man to Mars. The engineering challenges are so much more difficult for the latter option that the scientific discoveries uncovered by that pursuit would be much more robust. Especially given the three separate phases of the Mars mission. Each one will need a great deal of science and engineering input in order to proceed forward.

  • [Avatar for EG]
    October 19, 2015 08:21 am

    To all:

    Let me follow up on my first comment. I’m certainly not one to encourage more government spending. But spending for NASA is a very different as it tends to encourage more long-term R&D that most private corporations, especially large ones, simply won’t do because of the greater risk and the need to satisfy short-term shareholder demand for immediate results and immediate stock improvement. (I could go on about how current corporate law drives short-term gratification versus long-term gain, but I don’t want this comment to drag on.) Again, using my example of the “race-for-space,” anyone who thinks that would have occurred without NASA is not dealing with reality of how private corporations, especially large ones, operate in terms of risk versus gain.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    October 19, 2015 07:03 am


    Just as a matter of historical accuracy, your view of “engineering accuracy” misses well the point that I have stressed here that the human presence is the critical factor.

    Anytime someone starts thinking that humans are a liability, it is time for that person to take some time out and think of the larger picture. I certainly do not want that person anywhere near a position of authority or decision making.

    Maybe the wonder of President Kennedy’s challenge has been lost on a generation or more, but there is no excuse for viewing humans as “cargo” or as a “liability.’ There remains an ethical dimension in engineering and that is the human factor and remembering the bigger picture as to why humans are involved.

  • [Avatar for Benny]
    October 19, 2015 06:01 am

    Angry dude @5, just as a matter of engineering accuracy, Apollo 13 could have continued its’ mission to land on the moon after the oxygen tank explosion, but would not have been able to return its’ crew to Earth. So, not a good example, as in this case the human cargo were a liability rather than an asset.
    Night writer has a valid point. I would also add that a manned mission to Mars would be a test flight with a limited chance of success, and failure would be very obvious and very expensive. NASA’s success rate with unmanned Mars missions is only around 70% (15 out of 21 missions)

  • [Avatar for Mark Summerfield]
    Mark Summerfield
    October 19, 2015 03:36 am

    I agree with Night Writer, and Professor Elton John – Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids.
    In fact, it’s cold as hell!

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    October 18, 2015 02:52 pm

    I get what you are saying Anon. I think we should focus more and science right now. Mars is not exactly a great place to and live.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    October 18, 2015 12:21 pm

    Night Writer,

    You will always have competition for resources (there is no “unlimited” source of funds).

    That being said, a fair argument can be made for a spectrum of distribution between the “raw” and basic sciences and those activities identified with a range of immediate, short, mid and long term paybacks.

    My point above at post 4 (which seems to have escaped your notice), was that aiming to have a human presence forces the basic sciences to include human sustainability that meets the spectrum of timing paybacks and benefits far beyond just the future human needs. Such a view has the immediate (possible) payback of dealing with our limited and dwindling resources in the here and now.

    I do agree that some funding should be earmarked for the so-called “naked” basic sciences, since we cannot know a priori what is the best avenue forward. But the bulk of funding should (in my humble opinion) be earmarked for the human presence – that is our most important goal, and the one that unifies “our” collective advantage (even the so-called “naked” research will still need to be turned to the advantages of humans).

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    October 18, 2015 08:08 am

    Sorry for the extra comment, but just think how crazy it is that we don’t have a weather satellite around Titan. Think about that. We are desperately trying to understand our weather systems to make trillion dollar decisions about carbon emissions, and yet a scientific mission that would potentially vastly increase our understanding of weather is not being done. That illustrates to me that our system is very broken.

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    October 18, 2015 07:50 am

    >>If trying to reach Mars makes no sense to you I’m not going to argue with you.

    With people it doesn’t make sense right now. It makes sense to me to be sending bigger and better robotic missions to Mars. Or even a mission that would go there and collect samples and send them back.

    Think about the fact that we don’t even have a weather satellite around a moon of Saturn when one likely has liquid water and anther has storms and liquid nitrogen (Titan). That when understanding weather is a multi-trillion dollar question on Earth. (Or that we are effectively killing off our particle physics programs.) The fact that we don’t have a weather satellite around Titan is proof to me that things are very wrong.

    My point is not that we wouldn’t get some benefits from going to Mars but that the cost to benefit ratio is low compared with other scientific missions.

    What I think is that just like patents K street is controlling the discussions about spending. I think it is a matter of following the money. Our basic science research spending is about in the same condition as our infrastructure.

    Would I take a mission to Mars vs. nothing. Yes. But, I think the money could be much better spent. (And I know people like Carl Sagan would agree.)

    (But, just like Carl Sagan I am afraid to even bring this up as then it is used to try to end space exploration by some, and I would rather we go to Mars than do nothing.)

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    October 17, 2015 11:13 pm

    Night Writer-

    Do you actually think getting to Mars will only take putting humans on a capsule on top of high explosives, point up and wait? You do realize that the effort to put a man on Mars will by its very nature absolutely require spending on both basic and advanced scientific research and engineering?

    If trying to reach Mars makes no sense to you I’m not going to argue with you. That is your opinion. But to suggest that this is either we go to Mars or we spend on research is a completely false choice that ignores NASA’s innovative history.


  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    October 17, 2015 04:31 pm

    Frankly I don’t get it. How can intelligent people actually think it is better to drop $200 billion putting a couple of people on Mars for a week rather than spend that money on basic research. It makes no sense. None. I think you should make a list of all things we could get for science with that money and ask yourself if it is worth it. Think of all the missions to the moons of Saturn we could make with 1/10 that amount of money. And the telescopes. And the particle accelerators, etc.

    I really think that the big corporations have found a way to control the agenda of the conversation. I remember that Carl Sagan was afraid to talk about this as he might be black balled.

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    October 17, 2015 04:26 pm

    There is so much we can do without people and people cost about 10-100 times more to send. Let’s get the low hanging fruit and fund the science missions first.

    Plus, if you really want to get to brass tacks, what we really need to do is start funding particle physics again in the US, and fund more telescope (and material science labs, etc.)

    To my mind, this manned stuff is just another big corporation capturing the agenda for their benefit. Let’s stick to science first.

    Sure, I want to go to other planets, but be real. Spend $200 billion to put people on Mars? Really?! When we have pretty much stopped funding much of basic science? What is happening is the big corps are sucking us dry. And, be real too. Spend money on propulsion systems and telescopes to find life in the galaxy. The middle of Death Valley is more habitable than Mars. I’ll tell you what. We’ll sell you 10 square miles of desert for only $50 billion, and we’ll wall it off so you can be all by yourself and have the right gravity and air. How about that deal?

    Carl Sagan, by the way, thought the same thing.

  • [Avatar for Buzzy Allsafe]
    Buzzy Allsafe
    October 17, 2015 02:16 pm

    The Mars plan sounds like an absurd illogical means to create a justification for endless spending. NASA needs to be a more transparent agency, or call it quits.

    We need to master the Moon first with possibly dozens, if not hundreds, of missions. This will lead to the countless inventions needed to make our way elsewhere.

  • [Avatar for angry dude]
    angry dude
    October 17, 2015 01:48 pm

    Night Writer @3

    There is a problem with unmanned exploration of remote planets:

    It only takes a little over 1 second for radio waves to reach the Moon, whereas it takes them on average 10 min and as much as 22 minutes to reach the Mars.
    Multiply it by 2 and it makes it impossible to remotely navigate anything from the Earth.
    Until computer intelligence reaches much higher levels of adaptability to unforeseen circumstances human presence is still required for decision making.
    Do you think Apollo 13 could survive and come back without intelligent humans on board ?

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    October 17, 2015 01:20 pm

    Night Writer @ 3.

    There is a larger imperative that “people need to be there.”

    Advancement of the species to more than one world, more than one solar system mirrors the drive of human exploration that all of human history (and much of other avenues of human imagination – think Star Trek and its human element as being critical).

    It is one thing to send a non-human presence as an initial probe. It is a quantum leap to aim to send our species. Such advances as would be necessary to survive (thrive) in harsh and limited environments would indeed have payback here on earth as to conservation of our own limited resources.

    Such would be a win-win even for those who care not for space travel or gadgetry and have a much more liberal-minded bent.

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    October 17, 2015 12:20 pm

    I am all for space exploration, but I don’t think people need to be there. It makes the exploration much, much more expensive.

  • [Avatar for angry dude]
    angry dude
    October 17, 2015 10:47 am

    Me thinks that fixing US Patent system will do a lot more for the Progress of Humanity than any other government agency can do with their hugely inflated budgets (and I know first hand how government agencies like NASA operate)
    Elon Musk has already shown that you can fly to space for cheap and without any help from our beloved government.

  • [Avatar for EG]
    October 17, 2015 08:39 am

    Hey Gene and Steve,

    For those who think now that the “space race” in the 60’s was simply an expensive political event, let me add that we also all benefited greatly from the miniaturization of electronics that was driven by that “race” and is now in every electronics device, be it computer, smartphone, etc., that we own. As you point out astutely, the spin-off technologies that have come out of NASA’s programs that benefit all are huge reward for all those dollars spent, and which should still be spent for all the potential future spin-off technologies we’ll reap from it of immeasurable value.

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