President Obama might be approaching the end of his term but he is making one last push for a future manned mission to Mars.
It looks like Obama wants to make sure that NASA gets humans to Mars, fulfilling the promise of a program that he helped to get underway six years ago. The U.S. president wrote of his plans in an opinion piece published by CNN.
Obama writes on ambitions for Mars mission
“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” he wrote the column. “Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we’re already well on our way.”
The support comes ahead of the Frontiers Conference, a conference hosted by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh this Thursday. The event, which is hosted in Pittsburgh, is co-sponsored by the White House and will be attended by some of the top scientists from across the nation.
During the conference, the U.S. government is expected to detail new developments that could be used to reach Mars. Among them is the selection of six companies that will make prototypes and concepts for deep space habitats.
Conference brings top scientists to Pittsburgh this Thursday
The event will also provide an opportunity for advocates of a manned Mars mission to garner extra support. Any manned mission will cost billions of dollars, and will involve the development of a deep-space rocket and Orion multipurpose crew vehicle.
Obama has been an advocate of a manned Mars mission for years. In a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in 2010, he promoted the idea of such a mission taking place by the 2030s. “I expect to be around to see it,” he said.
It looks as though the conference this Thursday will enable Obama to underline his support for the NASA mission.
“In 20 years, people will look back and say it was Barack Obama that sent us to Mars,” said John M. Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “It’s only natural that he would like to have that as part of his legacy.”
Private companies set to play important role
However some people do not agree that a potential mission should be put down to Obama’s influence. Some Congressmen, especially Republicans, have said that the president has not invested enough in a Mars mission. Others say that NASA should use the moon as a steppingstone to Mars, rather than an asteroid.
At the same time, lawmakers are readying themselves for the next president. Last month the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed a bipartisan bill that directs NASA to get humans o Mars within 25 years. This is the first time that a manned mission would be mandated by law.
Some people point out that Obama scrapped the Constellation program, to send astronauts back to the moon, shortly after he came into the White House. However, Obama will likely speak about how private companies will play an important part in reaching Mars, just as they have in developing cheaper technology to enter Low-Earth orbit.
One such company is SpaceX, run by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, which has been flying cargo pods to the International Space Station. The company is scheduled to start taking astronauts to the ISS soon as a replacement for the space shuttle program.
Considerable risks must be considered
According to Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Mars mission requires the involvement of the space industry. Stallmer expects Obama to speak out on the importance of the private sector.
“It won’t happen without the private sector,” he said. Government funding and commercial expertise “are the two major ingredients of the secret sauce of how we’re going to get there.”
However, such a mission isn’t without its risks. A Mars mission will take several years, exposing astronauts to mental stress and potentially physical harm.
According to a study published Monday, brain damage was observed in test rodents exposed to cosmic radiation.
“This is not positive news for astronauts deployed on a two-to-three-year round trip to Mars,” said researcher Charles Limoli, professor of radiation oncology at the University of California, Irvine. “The space environment poses unique hazards to astronauts. Exposure to these particles can lead to … performance decrements, memory deficits, anxiety, depression, and impaired decision-making.”
A potential Mars mission will come at a huge financial cost, and the potential human cost is not yet known. Despite the unknowns, it seems that President Obama will pledge his continued support to the idea of putting humans on Mars.