The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a very ambitious project slated for the 2030s: to send man to Mars. The U.S. government space agency first outlined the plan in 2010, after nearly four decades of robotic exploration on the Red Planet, and has since taken many steps to make NASA’s Orion crew capsule and Space Launch System a plausible reality.
But according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the likeliness of the mission to take off is questionable. The two reasons cited by the GAO, which has conducted two government-requested audits, are lack of funding and internal management problems.
“The main problem is that we do not have a clear long-term goal for the national human spaceflight program,” said Mike Gruntman, a professor of astronautics at the University of Southern California, to The Christian Science Monitor. “Being rudderless does not help in bringing public excitement and support.”
Earlier this year, a House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology highlighted the deficit of a plan in NASA's Mars mission.
"We do not have a planned strategy or architecture with sufficient detail," said Tom Young, the former director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, reported The Verge at the time.
NASA’s working timeline for the Journey to Mars initiative includes testing an SLS launch in 2018 where an empty Orion vessel will orbit the moon, sending four astronauts to redirect an asteroid in the next ten years and finally sending a crew to Mars in the 2030s.
“Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system,” said NASA. “Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth, helping us learn more about our own planet’s history and future. Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?”
The shifting timelines, coupled with exorbitant funding requires to launch, make the mission difficult to execute according to some. Adding to the growing skepticism of the mission is the upcoming election, which will see a new administration in power.
“Ideally, if these programs go forward, NASA would be taking actions to reduce the risks we see now, which are being caused by management issues,” said Cristina Chaplain, who led the GOA audit, to the Christian Science Monitor. “They’re going to face the technical issues no matter what. But they’re exacerbating them with management concerns, like not having accurate cost estimates.”
To its credit, NASA continues moving towards its goal of sending a crew to Mars and is optimistic of its chances.
"We think we're on the right trajectory to get humans to Mars in the 2030's," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told CNBC's "On the Money" in April.