Can Congress at least agree on Mars colonization?

The US Senate has proposed legislation that would be the first that calls on NASA to ultimately establish a human colony on the Red Planet. 

NASA/Reuters
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) in orbit above the Red Planet in undated artist's concept released September 2014. A Senate committee is expected to forward a bill this week that includes a provision to protect NASA's efforts to put an astronaut on Mars by the mid-2030s.

In this hyper-partisan era of Congress, one unearthly goal has brought Republicans and Democrats together: Mars.

The Senate Commerce Committee is expected to move forward this week with a bipartisan bill that, for the first time, calls on NASA to ultimately establish a human colony on the Red Planet. To aid the space agency, the bill aims to prevent any future president from interfering with a $19.5-billion authorization package or development programs for rockets and spacecraft destined for Mars.

The bill is an unusual display of congressional bipartisanship in a politically divided climate on Capital Hill and among the American public. Its sponsors emphasize its importance to American space superiority and to the US economy. The proposed legislation is also a sign that at least some in Congress are on board with industry and academic experts who see NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s as more than a far-fetched space dream, as NASA administrator Charles Bolden said at an international aerospace conference last week.

“We’re closer to sending human beings to Mars today than anyone, anywhere” has ever been, Mr. Bolden said at the conference in Long Beach, Calif., according to The Wall Street Journal. “We’re making real, tangible progress,” he said, adding people outside NASA no longer smirk or question the goal of a manned mission to Mars. Instead, agency officials are “seeing a new consensus emerge,” with industry and academic experts asking, “how can we be a part of this?” writes The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor.

The sponsors of the proposed legislation are US Sens. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, Gary Peters (D) of Michigan, Roger Wicker (R) of Mississippi, and Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico. All of the senators are from states that either have NASA centers and facilities or border states that do.  

The legislation affirms Congress will support “continuity of purpose” for NASA to send a manned mission to Mars in two decades, as well as other agency programs involving deep-space exploration and space science. It also criticizes past program cancellations for “placing the nation’s investment in space exploration at risk” and “degrading the aerospace industrial base,” a criticism Mr. Cruz has directed at President Obama for defunding the study of space exploration in favor of Earth sciences, including climate change.

“America has a long history of leading the way in space exploration and we must reclaim that leadership,” Mr. Cruz, the chair of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, said Friday, in a statement about the bill. “This NASA reauthorization bill brings us one step closer to reasserting American leadership in space by ensuring NASA has the certainty it needs to continue to grow and improve upon what it does best: lead the world in space exploration.”

Cruz, the Obama administration, and others in Washington agree that NASA should send humans to Mars, but they disagree on exactly how. Some in Congress, including Cruz, have argued NASA should return to the moon to test the technologies and logistics needed to travel to Mars. President Obama has insisted that the agency leave lunar travel in the past, instead directing it to aim for Mars in 2025, with a manned mission there in the 2030s, according to The Christian Science Monitor’s Lonnie Shekhtman. Under the Obama administration, NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011. The president also shifted US policy, having commercial taxis and cargo serve the International Space Station.

The Senate bill aims to ensure that no future president can shift course again. Yet, the four leading presidential candidates have been tight-lipped about their visions for the country’s space program. A series of 20 questions-and-answers ScienceDebate.org published last week reveals all the candidates that answered (Libertarian Gary Johnson hasn’t) support space travel as an end, although their reasons for doing so differ. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, for instance, said the American space program is important for scientific innovation and technology. Republican nominee Donald Trump emphasized its benefit to American industries.

Any trip to Mars would come at a substantial cost, one the Obama administration has aimed to curb. The approximately $19 billion the bill calls for in fiscal year 2017 is in opposition to the Obama administration's proposal to reduce spending on deep-space exploration by $800 million that year.

This investment would only be the beginning of an expensive mission to the Red Planet, which current NASA funding wouldn’t cover, according to the Monitor’s Ms. Shekhtman. Some estimate it will cost about $100 billion over 30 years, while others predict it will cost $500 billion. Other estimates are more optimistic. They predict that if NASA funding grows with inflation, and the agency partners with others internationally, it could send humans to Mars’s orbit by 2033 with a planetary landing in 2039. That said, private companies such as SpaceX might make it there first.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said he plans to send humans to Mars in 2025. A privately funded mission might be more palatable for Americans in light of the country's opposition to humans' first trips to another, closer celestial object.

Support for a manned mission to the moon was surprisingly low in the buildup and shortly after the Apollo missions. Americans have forgotten, wrote Alexis Madrigal for The Atlantic in 2012, that civil rights advocates and scientists opposed the missions because they drew billions of dollars away from those and other sectors. In the years after the lunar landings, though, retroactive support for the missions have steadily grown.

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