If you’ve been following space, science, or even general technology news over the past few years you’ve heard a whole lot about Mars, as well as all the people who are working on making a manned Mars mission a reality. Scientists are simulating Mars missions in the desert, building massive Mars “settlements,” and companies like SpaceX and Boeing are working on new, more powerful rockets to push manned spacecraft all the way to the Red Planet.
Unfortunately, getting a Mars mission off the ground is going to cost a whole lot of cash, and that’s money that NASA simply doesn’t have. As Ars Technica breaks down, the prospect of a manned Mars mission on NASA’s dime is, for the time being at least, little more than a lofty dream.
At a meeting in March, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, uttered two words that are like a stake in the heart of anyone who dreams of see man walk on Mars: “flat budget.” This is essentially NASA’s way of saying that they’ll do their best with what they already have, and aren’t counting on seeing loftier budgets in the near future, or even an increase based on inflation. That’s bad news for a Mars mission, and the figures needed to make a Mars mission a reality simply aren’t there.
At present, the budget for the four-year period from 2019 through 2023 does not allow any wiggle room to even begin working on actual Mars mission plans, aside from studies related to Mars habitation. For the next half decade, NASA won’t be working towards the goal of a manned Mars landing in any substantial way, and it’s unclear whether that has a chance to change in the years that follow.
To be clear, even putting the budget woes aside, spaceflight technology isn’t yet at a point where we can accurately forecast when a Mars mission would be a realistic option. Companies like SpaceX and Boeing — with its Mars-capable Space Launch System rocket platform — will be able to inch us nearer to that ultimate goal, but NASA doesn’t have the funding to bring it all together, and it’s unclear when they ever will. Going forward, NASA will need a healthy mix of friendly budgets and luck to successfully send astronauts to Mars within our lifetimes.