China and Russia are beating the United States in the race to send people to Mars, and NASA's target date of 2033 is looking like a long shot.
That assessment reflects a failure to invest in the research and development of nuclear propulsion systems needed to carry humans to Mars. And the propulsion is only one of three major areas in which U.S. efforts remain deficient, according to a senior NASA official who testified alongside Myers, while Russia and China have conducted more focused investments in the novel technology.
“When you look at all of that, and you ask about the technology development requirement, from where we are today to launching a crewed mission, we saw that as a tremendous challenge and possibly unobtainable,” Dr. Roger Myers, who co-chaired the Committee on Space Nuclear Propulsion Technologies for the National Academy of Sciences, told House lawmakers Wednesday. “Likely, likely unobtainable, by 2033.”
“Our strategic competitors, including China, are indeed aggressively investing in a wide range of space technologies, including nuclear power and propulsion to fulfill their ambitions for sustained human lunar presence, as well as Martian and deep space science missions,” NASA senior adviser Bhavya Lal told a House Science subcommittee. “The United States needs to move at a fast pace to stay competitive and to remain a leader in the global space community.”
Lal specified that detailed insights into China’s research plans are “hard to come by,” but she emphasized that Beijing has established a “very aggressive space development program.” They had a more specific sense of how Russia’s space program seems to have outstripped their U.S. counterparts.
“Russia has a significant nuclear electric propulsion development program,” Myers said. “I could not comment on how far along they are. I don't have that kind of insight. It does seem to be more advanced than what we're doing today.”
Chinese officials have identified 2033 as the year that they hope to send Chinese spacefarers to Mars, the first of several missions intended to involve the construction of a permanent base on the planet. NASA officials touted the goal of a 2033 mission to Mars as recently as 2019, when then-Administrator Jim Bridenstine told lawmakers that an expedited return to the moon could hasten a mission to Mars, but Lal tapped the brakes on those ambitions.
“Deep space transport is just one piece of getting to Mars; there's also the entry, descent, and landing — which is very, very difficult, and we have not invested much in it at all,” she said, before underscoring the risks to the astronauts on the spacecraft. “And we need to make sure that the environmental control and life support systems can keep them alive for two to three years.”
“There's huge amounts of galactic and cosmic radiation that astronauts would be exposed to and we need to understand the impact of the radiation on the human body,” she added.
Such assessments disappointed Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat, who resisted the idea that the U.S. space industry has failed to capitalize on other breakthroughs.
“Between the scientific community, the engineering community, the technical community, we can do that,” he said. “Four years ago or five years ago, we had a couple senior people from NASA ... saying, ‘2033 — the orbital mechanics is good. That gives us a 15-year lead time, and, yeah, we can do it.’”
Myers reminded the subcommittee that “no currently available nuclear reactor fuels can provide the required temperatures to meet the required performance or engine life,” as he put it in his opening statement. He also told them “technology to store liquid hydrogen in space for the required missions does not exist” and that NASA needs to enhance the capabilities required even to test nuclear-thermal propulsion systems.
“We need to make some fundamental progress on the technologies before we start the mission itself,” he said. “So, we do need to establish the infrastructure required at the technology level, and then the ground infrastructure and the space infrastructure, before we can really start the mission.”
Lal reminded lawmakers that the space race isn’t just a vanity project, but one with wide-ranging consequences for the balance of power on Earth.
“They represent the type of investment that could help the U.S. maintain its global technological edge at a time when more countries around the world seek to fulfill space exploration objectives,” she said in her opening statement. “Nuclear power systems that could be used on the moon could be developed within the decade. Nuclear propulsion capabilities will cost more and take longer — realizing these capabilities would require sustained commitment and substantial investment over the next 10-20 years.”
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Original Author: Joel Gehrke
Original Location: NASA: China and Russia leading the race to Mars