In its efforts to reach Mars by the 2030s, NASA has enlisted the help of one of the world’s newest space agencies, signing an agreement with the United Arab Emirates to collaborate on space exploration.
The agreement the US space agency signed Sunday in Abu Dhabi has made "the exploration of Mars" its first priority. The two countries have also agreed to share research, scientific instruments, and possibly spacecraft.
For NASA, the agreement comes amid a debate simmering in Congress about how much a journey to the Red Planet will cost, and broader questions about whether human exploration of Mars should be the agency’s first priority.
"There are a lot of things we could be doing in space," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California said at a hearing last month, mentioning the clean-up of space debris and a system to protect Earth from an asteroid impact. "I hope that we make sure that we don't waste dollars on things that we don't accomplish anything with," he added.
A 2014 review by the National Research Council found that it would take NASA 20 to 40 years to send humans to Mars' surface, costing nearly $500 billion, John Sommerer, the panel's chairman, told lawmakers in February.
While NASA officials have often avoided directly discussing the cost of a Mars mission, ArsTechnica reports, the amount available for space exploration comes to only about $180 billion over the next 20 years. Putting that money toward a Mars mission could also require abandoning the International Space Station, which NASA is unlikely to do.
"While sending humans to Mars, and returning them safely to the Earth, may be technically feasible, it is an extraordinarily challenging goal, from physiological, technical, and programmatic standpoints," Dr. Sommerer, a space scientist who headed the technical panel, told lawmakers. "It is only with unprecedented cumulative investment, and, frankly, unprecedented discipline in development, testing, execution, and leadership, that this enterprise is likely to be successful."
Other countries have also joined the fray. While officials from India's space agency have been loath to declare their own mission to Mars part of a "space race" with other nations, their effort comes with a much more affordable price tag.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi once quipped that the country's $73 million Mars Orbiter Mission is even less expensive than the budget for the sci-fi blockbuster "Gravity," which cost $100 million. By comparison, NASA's Maven satellite reportedly costs $671 million.
One key reason India is able to keep costs down is because of the vast differences in labor costs. While the mean income for an aeronautical engineer is about $105,000 in the US, as NPR reported in 2013, higher-paid engineers in India make less than $20,000.
Acknowledging the high costs of NASA's Mars effort, some have suggested that establishing a base on the moon could be an intermediate step toward a manned voyage to Mars.
But NASA administrator Charles Bolden has continued to press forward with the effort, including signing the deal with the UAE, which is aiming to send an unmanned probe to Mars by 2021.
"Time and again I hear enthusiasm about our Journey to Mars and an appetite for partnership in this remarkable pursuit of progress and possibility," Mr. Bolden said in a blog post ahead of signing the agreement, saying such efforts at "space diplomacy" were a key step toward making a journey toward Mars a reality.
The oil-rich Arab country has also signed similar cooperation agreements with China, Russia, and Britain, tech site The Verge reports. While the details haven't been made public, Khalifa Al Romaithi, chair of the UAE Space Agency, said in a statement that the partnership "opens the door to the creation of a wide range of mutually beneficial programs and activities involving numerous organizations within the UAE and the USA."
NASA's Bolden echoed that focus. "Together, we can bring humanity to the face of Mars and reach new heights for the benefit of all humankind … and we will," he wrote last week.