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[i]To make progress toward [sending human explorers to Mars], the draft Authorization Act wisely calls for NASA to develop "a Mars Human Exploration Roadmap defining the capabilities and technologies necessary to extend human presence to the surface of Mars". But then, with almost no technical justification, the draft legislation also dictates what some of the key elements of that roadmap should or should not be. Specifically, it directs NASA to "establish a program to develop a sustained human presence on the Moon", and forbids NASA to "fund the development of an asteroid retrieval mission to send a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid for rendezvous, retrieval, and redirection of that asteroid to lunar orbit for exploration by astronauts."
I believe that it would be unwise for Congress either to prescribe or proscribe any key milestones in NASA's Mars exploration roadmap at this time. To do so would put the cart before the horse. Personally, I agree with the draft Authorization Act's position on the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, and I disagree with its position on a sustained lunar presence. But my personal views are not the point. In the 1960s, the government set the high-level goal of sending humans to the Moon, and then left it to the engineers, scientists, and managers of NASA to find the right program architecture to achieve this goal. I believe that a similar approach should be taken to the achieving the goal of getting humans to Mars.
The key early elements of the architecture that will be used to get to Mars have been agreed upon and are in development. The Space Launch System will provide an initial heavy lift capability, the Orion crew capsule will provide short-duration crew support, and the early flights will be to lunar orbit. Other pieces of the puzzle - new technologies and new vehicles - will be needed later. But these provide a start.
Beyond lunar orbit, milestones that could be considered include an asteroid that has been redirected to lunar orbit, the lunar surface, a near-Earth asteroid, Mars orbit, and the moons of Mars. I urge that milestones not be dictated, either by the Administration or the Congress, without allowing NASA to develop a technically sound Mars roadmap first. The objective of this roadmap should be to achieve the goal of human exploration of Mars as quickly and efficiently as possible. Once a viable roadmap has been generated, the additional technologies, vehicles, and milestones that are needed to make it a reality will become clear.[/i]
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