In an interview conducted by USA Today on the eve of what is hopefully the successful soft landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity, NASA administrator Charles Bolden's thoughts turned to a future manned mission to Mars.
Future missions to Mars to be international
Bolden emphasized that any future manned missions, whether to Mars or the moon, will have international partners, according to USA Today. Bolden is quoted as saying, "I have no desire to do a Mars landing on our own. The U.S. cannot always be the leader, but we can be the inspirational leader through international cooperation" in space exploration.
The dream of going to Mars
A human mission to Mars has been on NASA's wish list since just after the Apollo moon landing. The Space Task Group, which issued a set of recommendations to President Nixon soon after the Apollo 11 moon landing, suggested a Mars landing sometime in the 1980s. Though that plan went nowhere, humans to Mars has always been a feature of studies of future space exploration. Mars was the ultimate destination for both President George H. W. Bush's Space Exploration Initiative and President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. President Obama, soon after he cancelled the second President Bush's program, suggested that Mars was still an ultimate destination in a speech delivered at the Kennedy Space Center.
Bolden is criticized
NASA Watch, which covers aspects of the American space program, criticized Bolden for dwelling on a mission to Mars that would not take place for another 20 to 25 years according to the current schedule. No one currently either at NASA headquarters or the White House will be around in 2035 or so when a manned mission to Mars would take place. Aside from the fact that the Orion Multi-Purpose Crewed Vehicle and the heavy lift Space Launch System would in some way be involved, it is currently undetermined what the architecture of a humans to Mars mission would look like. NASA Watch also characterized Bolden's musings about America not being able to lead as "defeatist."
Planetary science cutbacks
Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration has proposed draconian cuts in planetary science, including future robotic missions to Mars. This has caused the cancellation of a number of high-profile missions, including a joint mission with the European Space Agency that had been scheduled to be launched in 2018. In effect, President Obama abruptly withdrew from the sort of international partnership Bolden advocates for human space missions to Mars and other destinations.
Bolden on China and an unlimited budget for NASA
A video that accompanied the USA Today story also contained Bolden's musings on the prospect of a Chinese landing on the moon and a hypothetical "unlimited" budget for NASA. On the former, Bolden, who expressed disdain at the idea of a space race, hoped that a Chinese landing on the moon would cause the same sort of euphoria that the landing of Apollo 11 caused in 1969. China is considered a repressive, totalitarian regime and an opponent of the United States on Earth. A recent article in Foreign Policy warned of dire consequences if China should reach the moon before American astronauts return. If NASA were to receive an "unlimited budget" Bolden pledged to carry out President Obama's program, suggesting that he would not take advantage of the extra money to pursue further opportunities.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.