For the last five years or so, NASA has sold the public on a Journey to Mars, a grand voyage by which the agency will land humans on the red planet during the 2030s. With just budgetary increases for inflation, the agency said, it had the resources for humanity’s next great step, to land crews safely on Mars, and to bring them home. The agency’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, and spacecraft, Orion, were sold by NASA administrator Charles Bolden as the vehicles that would get the job done.
There were plenty of naysayers. For example, a National Research Council report cautioned that the agency had too much work, and too little funds, to accomplish these goals in the 2030s with the SLS rocket—and that sustaining a “Mars program” into the 2040s would be a tremendous challenge. NASA’s remarkable response to this critical report was that it validated the Journey to Mars.
Now, finally, the agency appears to have bended toward reality. During a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics on Wednesday, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight acknowledged that the agency doesn’t really have the funding it needs to reach Mars with the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. These vehicles have cost too much to build, and too much to fly, and therefore NASA hasn’t been able to begin designing vehicles to land on Mars or ascend from the surface.