By Chris Zuver, A and E Editor
In late March, President Trump signed a bill called the “NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017.” Most notably, the bill directs NASA’s focus towards launching a human mission to Mars by 2033. While this bill may seem like a positive on the surface, it comes with some serious problems. While Trump has ambitions for Mars, his dedication seems questionable and his proposals to reach this goal are ineffectual. I’m all on board for going to Mars, but if we’re going to set goals, let’s make sure that they’re attainable.
“It’s been a long time since a bill like this has been signed reaffirming our national commitment to the core mission of NASA, human space exploration, space science, and technology,” Trump said in March, from behind the Oval Office desk. He later added, “We support jobs. It’s about jobs.” While the President may be supporting jobs, it does notn’t seem like there is enough support for NASA to reach Mars within the next two decades.
Although the latest bill permits the continuation of $19.5 billion in annual funding for 2017, a report from NASA’s inspector general, released on April 13, estimated that to complete such a journey by even the 2030’s would cost $450 billion over the next three decades. This means that at the current federal funding levels, NASA would require more investors.
Besides directing focus on the red planet, the bill also includes mandates that require NASA to pay for monitoring, diagnosis, and treatment of any spaceflight-related ailments of former astronauts, something the administration was unable to do in the past. It also mandates that NASA must use domestic space flight services, unless none are available in the U.S. Additionally, the bill will relaunch the National Space Council, a go-between for NASA and the White House. This will be the first time the council has been active since former President George H.W. Bush Sr. The bill aims to launch a manned mission to Mars in 2033, but it does not specify whether the intentions are to land on the red planet, or to simply orbit it.
Furthermore, the President’s dedication to the mission is questionable. A month after signing the bill, Trump spoke over the phone with astronaut Peggy Whitson, who was aboard the International Space Station. “Tell me, Mars,” he said to Whitson, “what do you see timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule and when would you see that happening?”
Whitson responded by reminding Trump that the bill he signed aimed for a mission in the 2030’s. She mentioned that NASA was currently building a heavy-launch rocket and that it would need testing. “Unfortunately,” she stated, “space flight takes a lot of time and money.”
Trump replied, “We want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, OK?”
Regardless of whether or not Trump’s remarks were simply banter, there are other issues to be considered other than funding and time:
While NASA has been given the OK to continue with their funding, other science and medicinal agencies have been slashed by Trump’s budget proposal. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will receive a 31% cut under the new budget proposal. The National Institutes of Health would be cut nearly by $6 billion.
Additionally, by next year, the President wants to make a 5% cut in NASA’s Earth Science department, which hosts climate change research initiatives that they would be forced to abandon. Trump seems to want NASA to focus on deep space instead. This cut seems minor and sensibly in-line with the President’s aim for Mars. What is more worrying for those concerned with climate change is the proposed EPA slash.
I’m all on-board for promoting NASA to engage Mars. One hopeful proponent in furthering this mission is Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, who could pair with NASA to help further push development and funding. But, if we apply the principle of Occam’s razor, we will see that one thing is almost certain: Mars will not be reached during the Donald’s lifespan in office, but rather, in an era when most millennials will be in their forties.
If there is, somehow, a sudden fiscal surge in NASA’s budget, or an aeronautic technological breakthrough in the immediate future, then I may be proven wrong. The future, however, is uncertain. What seems more certain, though, is that the GOP leader’s plans are, thus-far, ineffectual.
If you’re concerned about the human contribution to global warming or climate change then you should be concerned with Trump’s budget proposals, as well as his budget cut to NASA’s Earth Science.
So – Mars? Sign me up. But let’s make sure this isn’t just lip service.