(Source: Touchstone Pictures)
Report suggest U.S. partner with China to embark on a joint mission to the Moon or risk failure

Mars is a daunting goal.  At 139,808,518 miles from Earth -- on average -- Mars is nearly 600 times farther from Earth than the Moon (~238,900 miles).  With the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) racing to reach Mars under Obama and Bush administration edicts, a new Congressionally funded report is taking a critical look at the latest plan to achieve that objective.  That plan -- formulated by the Obama administration -- scrapped plans for a Lunar landing, instead opting for an unusual mission to capture an asteroid, haul to it to Lunar orbit, and then send astronauts to it.
In order to understand the report, let's first examine how plans have progressed and how they've changed in the past decade, under the past two presidents.
I. Bush's Plan: a New Lunar Landing, Then Mars
Many believe that a manned Mars landing is too ambitious a goal if we can't establish a semi-permanent manned presence on the Moon.
President George W. Bush (R) was of this mindset.  In a January 2004 speech President Bush called on The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to launch a new wave of lunar exploration, establishing a permanent presence on Earth's rocky satellite.  He stated:

Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the cost of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions... With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration -- human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.

President Bush pointing
A decade ago President Bush called on the U.S. to colonize the Moon. [Image Source: EPA]

The speech set a key policy, which would come to be known as the Vision for Space Exploration, a policy that would be initially funded under the NASA Authorization Act of 2005.  The funding bill planned to from 2006 to 2010 slowly grow NASA's funding from $16.5B USD to $18.5B USD, in order to keep up with costs of funding the preparation for a Moon mission.
As the bill was delivered shortly after the tragic destruction of Space Shuttle Columbia, a key pillar of the plan involved retiring the Space Shuttle in 2010 and replacing it with a new spacecraft.  That spacecraft was dubbed "Orion", while the program to develop was dubbed the "Constellation Program".
Constellation logo
Contracted to Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT), the proposed Orion design marked a return to reusable capsule craft.  It would include:
  • Crew Module (CM)
    • 4-6 astronauts
  • Launch Abort System (LAS)
    • Minimal propulsion systems to allow crew module to escape botched launch
  • Service Module (CM)
    • Cylindrical
    • Propulsion systems
    • Consumable supplies
Each Orion craft would be reusable for up to 10 missions.  Orion was to use the Ares I rocket, which featured a solid fuel first stage with a 150 second burn time for its first sage.  A more advanced variant of Orion , Altair, was planned for Moon missions -- it would have used the heavier Ares V rocket.

A 2006 render of the planned Orion manned capsule [Image Source: NASA]

A modified Altair would be eventually used around 2030 for the Mars mission.  The plan was to spend several months traveling to Mars during the conjunction period, spend a year or so exploring the planet, and then spend four months returning to Earth via the orbiting return module.  A backup return module would also be sent to Mars orbit, in case the first return module malfunctioned.
The Bush administration proposed that the program would cost $97B USD [PDF] (in 2008 dollars) from 2008 through 2020 -- or roughly $8B USD per year.
From 2006 to 2009, development commenced on Constellation, with only $8B USD being spent by 2010.  That number meant one of two things -- either the project was running into dangerous delays, or it was coming in (incredibly) under budget.  Unfortunately for Orion, the former was the case.  In fact, in 2007 NASA admitted that China might beat the U.S. in returning to the Moon because of the growing delays.
Orion's defenders acknowledge there were delays and budget overruns, but they argue that these were no more severe than those that the Apollo program faced (the Apollo program saw a 55 percent estimated lifetime budget overrun).
II. Obama's Plan: Asteroid in Lunar Orbit, Then Mars
President Bush's starry-eyed vision was critiqued by the Augustine Committee in 2009.  The culmination of a six-month review ordered by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the 156-page report [PDF] suggested that the current path to Mars might be infeasible.
A key claim of the Committee's resulting report was the claim that by fiscal 2010 a budget deficit would arise out of the Constellation program, a shortfall of around $225M USD.  This deficit was forecast to rapidly rise to $1.62B USD by 2013.
Hence in Feb. 2010, President Obama announced the controversial decision to effectively scrap most of the Constellation program by cutting its funding.  In April 2010 he suggested a new objective -- towing an Asteroid into Lunar orbit, and using manned exploration of that body as a stepping-stone for Mars exploration.

Obama NASA 2010
Obama visits Kennedy Space Center to deliver his April 2010 speech.
[Image Source: Getty Images]

The backbone of that plan came in the form of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which covered funding for 2011, 2012 and 2013.  It called for a budget of $19B USD in 2011, with a ramp back up to $20B USD by 2013.

In a speech President Obama stated:

Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before....

Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit.  And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space.  So we’ll start -- we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.  By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.

Under the President's plan, development of the Orion craft partially continued, even if the greater Constellation program was scrapped.  NASA is hoping to in Dec. 2014 send the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) on its first unmanned test flight (aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket).  A manned test flight is tentatively planned for 2020.  Some testing of the solid phase Ares rockets has continued, albeit at a diminished pace.
Meanwhile the President is also pursuing alternatives such as SpaceX's seven-passenger Dragon V2 capsule, which appears to have sizeable cost and capability advantages over Orion, on paper at least.  SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is targeting 2017 or 2018 for a manned test launch of the capsule.  Boeing, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada also have been contracted by NASA to produce candidate craft, but it appears that they are trailing NASA's in-house (Lockheed Martin contracted) Orion effort and SpaceX's Dragon capsule.

Dragon v2
SpaceX's manned  Dragon v2 capsule is expected to launch in 2017-2018. [Image Source: SpaceX]

President Obama's hope for making his asteroid mission a reality rests on his ability to convince congress to fund it.  With that in mind, a year and a half ago Congress allocated $3.2M USD to the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) -- a group of government-funded industry and academic experts -- to study the President's claims.
President Obama has claimed that the so-called "ARM" (asteroid redirect mission) objective would cost only $2.6B USD [PDF] and was already included in the current and projected budgets -- including the cost of developing a craft to put astronauts on the asteroid.  Most believe that the project funds would only cover the cost of developing and launching the probe to tow an asteroid into Moon orbit. They estimate that when the development of the manned module is factored in, costs would creep closer to the projected cost of the Constellation program -- $150B USD.
While it appears he may have fudged the numbers of the cost of the ARM project, President Obama does have some firepower when it comes to holding off on full commitment to Orion.  The 2009 Augustine Committee's suggested the cost of an Ares I launch (of Orion) would be around $1B USD, dropping to $138M USD eventually (versus a cost of around $153M USD to launch a Russian Soyuz capsule).
However, in 2011 NASA administrator Charlie Bolden suggested that the updated projections estimate a cost of $4–4.5B a year, and $1.6B USD per flight.  If accurate, that total hints that SpaceX (or another private contractor) may represent the only fiscally feasible path to achieving the plans for the ARM program and Mars mission.  If that's true, perhaps the President -- whether intentionally or accidentally -- made the right move in shelving the majority of the Constellation program development.

Asteroid mining
ARM takes mankind closer to mining asteroids, but not to colonizing the Moon.
[Image Source: Planetary Society]

Furthermore, some have suggested that the resources mined from a well-picked asteroid, including precious metals could be worth as much as $500M USD, helping to offset a small fraction of the mission costs.
So that's where things stand today.
The NRC has just returned with a 286-page report and its conclusions range from scathing to skeptical of President Obama's plan, particularly on the point of the controversial decision to ditch the Moon landing in lieu of "ARM".
III. The Commission’s Findings
i. China and the Moon
The report acknowledges that the ARM program is chasing the correct objective (pg. 20):

[T]he technical analysis completed for this study shows clearly that for the foreseeable future, the only feasible destinations for human exploration are the Moon, asteroids, Mars, and the moons of Mars. Among this small set of plausible goals for human space exploration,1 the most distant and difficult is a landing by human beings on the surface of Mars—requiring overcoming unprecedented technical risk, fiscal risk, and programmatic challenges. Thus the horizon goal for human space exploration is Mars. All long-range space programs, by all potential partners, for human space exploration converge on this goal.

But the report doesn't dally in getting to one of its critical and most controversial suggestions -- that the U.S. should not only consider returning to its original goal of a Moon landing, but should also consider partnering with frienemy China to do it.  The report acknowledges that current federal law may prevent that, but urges Congress to move proactively to change that.

Chinese Taikonauts
China's space program has exploded into the realm of manned space flight over the last decade, even as the NASA has struggled to unite behind a new path. [Image Source: AFP]

The authors write (pg. 20):

It is evident that U.S. near-term goals for human exploration are not aligned with those of our traditional international partners. While most major spacefaring nations and agencies are looking toward the Moon and, specifically, the lunar surface, U.S. plans are focused on redirection of an asteroid into a retrograde lunar orbit, where astronauts would conduct operations with it. It is also evident that given the rapid development of China’s capabilities in space, it is in the best interests of the United States to be open to its inclusion in future international partnerships.

In particular, current federal law preventing NASA from participating in bilateral activities with the Chinese serves only to hinder U.S. ability to bring China into its sphere of international partnerships and reduces substantially the potential international capability that might be pooled to reach Mars.

The report repeatedly states that its objective is not to recommend or dissuade Congress and the White House from a specific plan, but at the same time it doesn't exactly hide its disdain for President Obama's asteroid mission.  It writes (pg. 23):

While this report’s recommendation for adoption of a pathways approach is made without prejudice as to which particular pathway might be followed, it was, nevertheless, clear to the committee from this report’s independent analysis of several pathways that a return to extended surface operations on the Moon would make significant contributions to a strategy ultimately aimed at landing people on Mars and that it is also likely to provide a broad array of opportunities for international and commercial cooperation.

It repeats that partnering with the Chinese -- who have accomplished much on a relatively small budget -- could alleviate some of the budget issues.  But here, again, it characterizes the policies of Congress and the White House as somewhat bipolar and inconsistent (pg. 27):

The prohibition on NASA speaking to Chinese space authorities has left open opportunities for collaboration that are being filled by other spacefaring nations. The recent docking of a piloted Chinese vessel to a new orbital module, and the first robotic rover operations by China on the Moon, are the latest in a program that marches steadily and strategically toward what might eventually become a lead role among the nations in spaceflight. In contrast to the failure-prone early histories of the U.S. and USSR human spaceflight programs, China has proceeded methodically, deliberately, and with little in the way of visible failure.

The U.S. government’s response to this has been inconsistent, regarding China as a potential partner in certain areas and a threat in others.

Indeed, China recently joined the U.S. and former USSR as the only nations to have accomplished a soft Lunar landing.  But what's incredible is how China did it.
Forget that the Yutu rover was short-lived -- take in this fact: at the height of its Cold War era prowess, it took the U.S. 16 Moon shots before it succesfully completed a soft Moon landing with Surveyor 1.  Russia required 21 launches, including 11 failed lander launches, before it accomplished a soft landing with Luna 9.  

China's Yutu rover accomplished in just three Moon missions, what it took the U.S. 16 missions and Russia 21 missions to achieve. [Image Source: China Daily]

China was able to achieve a soft landing on the Moon in only its third mission -- Chang'e 3.  And its overly ambitious space exploration program appears to be at least three years ahead of schedule based on the objectives the Chines government proposed a decade ago.
ii. Slim Budgets, Apathetic Public
The report is rather merciless in blasting the lack of financial commitment from both President Bush and President Obama.   The authors again write (pg. 25):

Pronouncements by multiple presidents of bold new U.S. ventures to the Moon, to Mars, and to an asteroid in its native orbit, summarized in Section 1.2 of this chapter, have not been matched by the same commitment that accompanied President Kennedy’s now fabled 1961 speech—namely, the substantial increase in NASA funding needed to make it happen. In the view of many observers, the human spaceflight program conducted by the U.S. government today has no strong direction and no firm timetable for accomplishments.


[T]o set course on such an endeavor, the nation will need its investment in the human spaceflight program to grow annually over the coming decades. To continue on the present course—pursuit of an exploration system to go beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) while simultaneously operating the ISS through the middle of the next decade as the major partner, all under a budget profile that fails even to keep pace with inflation—is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best.

Here's some quick statistics to back up that claim.

First let's look at NASA's budget.

NASA budget
[Image Source: LeadingSpace Blog]

...notice the budget looks to be increasing, until you adjust for inflation.  Adjusting for inflation and the budget has yet to recover to 1990 levels.  Another way of looking at the budget is as a percentage of the total budget.
NASA budget by year
[Image Source: NASA]

And it's not just the NASA budget.  The percentage of military spending on space technologies was much higher during the Apollo era, helping the program cope with its major cost overruns.

NASA military supplements

(The red line represents the defense spending, not adjusted for inflation.)

Looking at budget plans, both Presidents Bush and Obama relied overly on the supposed savings of shuttering the Shuttle program.  But those gains just manage to keep the program a bit ahead of inflation, and definitely do not return it to its relative peak around 1990, let alone its Apollo era heyday.

NASA budget plans
[Image Source: NASA via Martian Chronicles Blog]

A major cause of the lack of direction and lack of funding the panel concludes is simply public apathy.  It asserts (pg. 46):

At any given time, a relatively small proportion of the U.S. public pays close attention to space exploration. Survey data collected over the years indicate that on average, about one in four U.S. adults tend to say that they have a high level of interest in space exploration (Figure 1.7).

Interest in the issue of space exploration is relatively low when compared to that in other policy issues. For example, the 2010 General Social Survey, which placed the estimate of those who are “very interested” in space exploration at 21 percent, found that this issue was at the bottom of a list of 10 issues it asked about, trailing related topics such as new technologies and inventions (38 percent) and new scientific discoveries (39 percent).

The report paints a fairly dire picture in terms of American interest in being a manned space flight leader.  The report notes that this may be due, in part to America's lack of a clear rival, although China is emerging to potentially take on that role.
The report is also relatively skeptical of help coming from a commercial firm like SpaceX.  Comments the panel:

It is currently impossible to assess whether commercial capabilities will develop to the point that they can create significant cost savings (on the order of tens of billions of dollars) for NASA human space exploration efforts beyond LEO. In addition, investments to foster new commercial partners may create a tension in NASA as the goal of facilitation of new commercial ventures can compete with that of exploration (that is, the goal of answering the enduring questions) in making decisions about program priorities.

The issue of tension between public employees and commercial firms is indeed well documented and worth considering.  However, it seems foolish to write off commercial aerospace so quickly, given the terrific results SpaceX has been showing, albeit almost single-handedly.
iii. Hope
Rivalries aside, the report does note another silver lining -- there appears to be growing public sentiment that a return to the Moon is worth it.  Unfortunately, the U.S. has killed that plan under President Obama.

NASA public opinion
Lunar exploration is gaining ground in public sentiment. [Image Source: CBS/NRC]

The report sounds hopeful that a redirect from the asteroid mission to the moon could yield not only gains in public perception of the mission, but stoke commercial development as well, writing:

Should the U.S. terminate all government involvement in NASA beyond-LEO exploration— including an asteroid redirect mission, the Moon, and Mars—human space exploration beyond LEO would likely slow by decades, placing Mars out of reach until late in the century or early in the next, and only when other entities emerge with significant investment to take the place of U.S. contributions. With regard to the Moon, the situation is less clear because it is possible that intense commercial development or substantial investment by another country could facilitate lunar exploration, although there is no way to predict such an eventuality.

It is noted that the asteroid mission is more affordable...

NASA asteroid plan
NASA's asteroid plan is affordable, but a dead end. [Image Source: NRC]

...but it is suggested that if the NASA budget can be made to keep pace with inflation, a Moon mission followed by a Mars shot could be fiscally feasible.  But the report suggests that a hybrid mission model involving first a mission to a "near Earth" asteroid followed by a Moon mission and then a Mars mission might be the best path of all, as it offers smaller steps toward the big goal of Mars exploration.

NASA exploration roadmap
The "enhanced exploration" path of landings on a near-Earth asteroid, followed by a Lunar landing appears to be the best practice approach. [Image Source: NRC]

The biggest advice from the report?  Don't do what President Obama did; don't change objectives midway through the program.  The report warns (pg. 208):

Probably the most significant single factor in allowing progress beyond LEO is the development of a strong national (and international) consensus about the pathway to be undertaken and sustained discipline in not tampering with that plan over many administrations and Congresses.

Without that consensus and discipline, it seems all too likely that the potential of SLS will be wasted, human spaceflight to LEO will become increasingly routine (though still with risk to life), and the horizons of human existence will not be expanded, at least not by the United States. With such a consensus, however, and with strict adherence to the pathways approach and principles outlined in this report, the United States could maintain its historic position of leadership in space exploration and embark on a program of human spaceflight beyond LEO that, perhaps for the first time in the more than half-century of human spaceflight, would be sustainable.

NASA enhanced exploration
[Image Source: NRC]

The report has a handful of other helpful tips, as well:

3. ... d.  Increasing NASA’s budget to allow increasing the human spaceflight budget by 5 percent per year would enable pathways with potentially viable mission rates, greatly
reducing technical, cost, and schedule risk.


5. Highest-Priority Capabilities. The highest-priority capabilities that are needed to enable
human surface exploration of Mars are related to:
a. Entry, descent, and landing for Mars
b. Radiation safety
c. In-space propulsion and power

To summarize, the report suggests there is hope of a U.S. Mars mission seeing success.  However, it also sets for a sharp set of criticisms and a highly detailed summary of hard (technical/scientific) challenges and soft (money/public sentiment) challenges that could derail the project.  And it suggests maintaining the status quo in terms of the President's asteroid mission and Congress's funding of NASA is an invitation for failure.
The President, Congress, and NASA will now have to decide whether to take the experts' advice.  Some tough decisions are in store.

Sources: NRC via The Washington Post [report], The Washington Post

"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer

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