Space

Giving Up On Mars Would Be “Disastrous,” NASA Chief Tells IFLScience

December 1, 2015 | by Jonathan O'Callaghan

Photo credit: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, speaking to IFLScience

When Major General Charles Bolden speaks, you listen. Not just because he is the head of NASA, nor just because he is a former astronaut of four missions. You listen because he is largely responsible for giving the agency a clear goal that has instilled excitement in his 18,000 employees, the American public, and the whole world – landing humans on Mars.

If, or perhaps when, humans land on Mars in the 2040s as planned, they will have Bolden to thank. Since being appointed as NASA Administrator by President Obama in 2009, he has made getting humans to the Red Planet the agency’s primary aim.

Perhaps not since the days of Apollo has NASA been so unified in its mission, so focused, and in an exclusive interview with IFLScience he explains why and how we choose this as our goal. And he’s not one to mince his words.

“Getting humans to Mars gives us the ability and the knowledge that we can comfortably move to another place in the Solar System should Earth become uninhabitable some day,” he says. “While it won’t save us when the Sun finally collapses [in 5 billion years], the journey to Mars will be the precursor for interplanetary and, way down the road, intergalactic travel.”

Big words, indeed.

Check out our video interview with Bolden above.

As head of NASA, Bolden is essentially the agency’s CEO. He has to juggle human spaceflight, four sub-divisions of science, aeronautics, and the development of new technologies, in addition to dealing with other national space agencies across the globe and working with the President and U.S. government to secure funding for his thousands of employees and hundreds of areas of research. Sounds easy, right?

Choosing Mars as NASA’s focus has not been without its critics, but Bolden is confident in his plans. He has made the development of a huge new rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – and a manned capsule called Orion the cornerstone of his effort to get humans to Mars. Battling flak from the public and Congress alike, things are now gathering pace. 

“Do I think we’re at the point of no return? Not quite,” he said, adding we are at a “perilous” moment where we need to maintain the progress that has been made in recent years. “To stop now and turn around, and go back and say okay, let’s think about another place we want to go, let’s think about focusing on lunar exploration and just take a hiatus there, I think it would be disastrous, personally.”

Getting humans to Mars is the primary focus of Bolden's administration. NASA

To allow NASA to focus on deep space exploration, Bolden has been attempting to outsource crewed missions to destinations in low Earth orbit, such as the International Space Station (ISS), to private companies through the Commercial Crew program. SpaceX and Boeing have both received multi-billion dollar contracts to develop such manned spacecraft, Crew Dragon and the CST-100 Starliner respectively, with launches expected to begin in 2017.

Bolden is adamant NASA will soon migrate from the “Earth-reliant environment of Earth orbit” into deep space, with possible outposts located near the Moon, to support manned missions to Mars. This will leave a gap in Earth orbit, which he says can be filled by these commercial companies.

“The void of operating and running low-Earth orbit will be filled by commercial space,” he said. “Somebody’s got to stay behind to mind the fort, to take vehicles as they come to low Earth orbit, for staging as they go on to the Moon and then onto Mars, and that somebody will be commercial and entrepreneurial entities, maybe even universities.”

SpaceX's Crew Dragon is scheduled to begin flights in 2017. SpaceX

Bolden’s time in office has also been notable for the juxtaposed relationship with Russia. While the American and Russian governments continue to bicker on the ground, things could not be any different in space, where NASA and Roscosmos – the Russian space agency – co-run the ISS with suprising alacrity, and Russian Soyuz vehicles continue to carry Americans into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

“Our relationship with Russia right now is tenuous,” said Bolden. “Our relationship with Roscosmos is beautiful. The way we cooperate with them, the way we train with them in Houston and Moscow and Star City, we launch out of Baikonur, that’s the model that you want for the future of humanity.”

It is for this reason that Bolden sees the eventual manned Mars missions as surely being an international endeavour, not just with Russia but with nations such as China and even the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well. “Nobody thinks about the UAE as a space-faring nation,” he said. “They’re actually very aggressive at wanting to be a part of the Mars exploration strategy. They have the assets and the brain power to do that.”

NASA astronauts currently launch to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. NASA

The search for extraterrestrial life, too, has moved from a fringe science to a major area of research during Bolden’s administration.

While the Curiosity rover continues to find evidence for past habitability on the surface of Mars, upcoming missions like the Mars 2020 rover and the Europa Flyby Mission will bring us closer than ever to a detection of life elsewhere in the Solar System, while missions like the Kepler space telescope continue to search for potentially habitable planets beyond.

“We’re oh so close [to finding life]!” Bolden exclaims. “A tremendous discovery was that of flowing water, ice though it may be, very briny water, on the surface of Mars. We’re talking about microbial life, we’re not talking about people walking around. We’re talking about the very foundation of life itself.”

He continued: “There are people who believe we will find life in the ocean of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, or in the ocean of Enceladus, a big moon of Saturn, both of which have geyser-like activity where water goes hundreds of meters in the air.”

There could be water, and even life, beneath the surface of Europa or Enceladus (shown). NASA

As there is no fixed term for NASA Administrators, Bolden will remain in office until he chooses to retire, or a new president after Obama decides to replace him. Although unwilling to name his preferred candidate in the upcoming presidential election, Bolden noted that he would be working closely with both parties to ensure the path he has set NASA on is continued, with or without him at the helm.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been before [to getting humans to Mars],” he said, “and to take a turn right now could start us in the other direction. I think that’s our big focus… to make sure that the potential leadership of the country full understands what potential they have in this great agency that we call the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”

There is little chance Bolden will still be head of NASA when humans eventually land on Mars. But he’ll surely be remembered as the Administrator that gave the world the focus and infrastructure it needed to make such a giant leap possible.

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