WASHINGTON — A human landing on Mars is still about 20 years away, but NASA's mission to the Red Planet appears to be steadily moving forward.
Development of key components of the deep-space rocket, capsule and infrastructure needed to reach Mars remain on schedule for an eventual landing in the 2030s, NASA's top human exploration chief told a Senate panel Wednesday.
And earlier Wednesday, a House subcommittee approved an authorization bill that would allow NASA to use an asteroid as part of a "steppingstone" approach for the mission, the space agency's preferred strategy. NASA wants to redirect an asteroid into the moon's orbit, land astronauts there and use the asteroid as a testing outpost and weigh station on the way to Mars.
House Republicans who want to return to the moon are skeptical of that approach. But the bipartisan authorization bill endorsed by the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space would permit the agency to consider the asteroid option. The agency would have to spell out the cost and details of the mission as part of an exploration "roadmap" to Mars that NASA would have to submit to Congress.
"I know that different members have their own personal favorite destinations and interim missions," said Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., a member of the subcommittee and co-sponsor of the authorization bill. "But this (measure) puts the job of deciding the pathway forward where it belongs by requiring NASA to develop an informed and realistic roadmap to get this nation to Mars."
In a hearing room on the other side of the Capitol, Associate NASA Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier assured members of a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee that the agency remains on target to launch an uncrewed mission in 2017 to test the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle that will carry astronauts to Mars.
Avionics testing of solid rocket boosters was completed Tuesday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in preparation for a test of the SLS rocket later this year. Acoustic testing of the engines was being conducted Wednesday at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. And sections of the massive rocket and its oxygen and hydrogen tanks are being welded together at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
"There is real hardware in manufacture for the path to Mars," Gerstenmaier told senators.
Talk of Mars permeates the nation's space program, which many say needs a bold target now that the space shuttle has been retired and a return trip to the moon is viewed by many as been there, done that. President Obama scrapped a lunar mission in 2010 on the advice of an expert panel.
But the ambitious Mars mission could be delayed or derailed if funding from a budget-conscious Congress continues to erode, or if other countries' plans for a lunar mission force the U.S. to change course for security reasons.
Although there's broad bipartisan support for landing humans on the Red Planet this century, not everyone likes the idea.
GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, who sits on the Space Subcommittee, called the notion "an expensive folly" that would divert billions from other, more urgent priorities.
"When one tries to cross a bridge too far, somebody's going to get soaked," Rohrabacher told fellow panel members. "In this case, it will be the American taxpayer who will be paying dearly for unnecessary expenditures in achieving a goal — landing human beings on Mars — which is more of a publicity stunt than a scientific achievement."
Former astronaut Leroy Chiao expressed a different view at Wednesday's Senate hearing, calling a Mars mission important not only for developing technologies beneficial to humans on Earth but for boosting national prestige and inspiration.
"Human space flight has become woven into the very fabric of our identity, as a nation of explorers, innovators and entrepreneurs," he said. "It was exactly the endeavors of the Apollo and prior programs that inspired me and my generation. We must do the same and more for our children and grandchildren, and to help maintain our position as the world leader."