What is NASA Doing?

By Joaquin Trujillo

President Trump’s request in his February 2020 State of the Union Address for funding “to ensure the next man and the first woman to the Moon will be American astronauts” points out the place of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) within the American ideological landscape. It reminds us — regardless of political perspective — that NASA is thoroughly an American project. It underscores the organization’s embodiment of basic aspirations of the American people and essential aspects of the American Creed, including the belief in the inherent power of the individual to go beyond himself, the understanding that the destiny of the American people includes responsibility to disseminate its capital ideals and overcome technological and scientific challenges, and the notion that exploration and discovery are commensurate with the fundamental human values promulgated in the foundational documents of the United States.

NASA’s professed goal of launching a human mission to Mars in the 2030s, a goal it has recently pulled back from stating explicitly, epitomizes the organization’s embodiment of American idealism. The difficulties of achieving the objective are extraordinary and point to the technological boundaries and horizons of human effort. Indeed, one of the reasons a human mission to Mars has seized the American imagination is that it reminds Americans how much further they can and must go to realize themselves individually and collectively. The inspiration is common to American political dialogue. President John F. Kennedy captured it in his 1962 Rice Stadium Moon speech.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

But is a human mission to Mars practically feasible and is the goal indeed NASA’s objective?

The fundamental obstacle challenging human missions to other planets, including Mars, is not lack of political will, organizational focus, or money. It is spacetime. The curvature of spacetime around Earth, the planet’s gravity well, delimits the ability of current propulsion technologies to put beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) the spaceflight systems that sustainable human expeditions to other planets would require. The span and flatness of spacetime between Earth and other planets delimits the ability of those technologies to transport humans beyond the Moon without shifting the burden of the journeys onto human physiology, including the body’s resiliency to prolonged exposure to microgravity and radiation, which is remarkably low.

NASA rockets use chemical propulsion technologies that go back to the Apollo Era. Although these rockets can deliver the exhaust velocity needed to boost mission systems beyond LEO, they cannot simultaneously lift the added fuel needed to make viable human expeditions to other planets.

For example, only nine persons have spent more than 300 days in space (range 312 to 438 days in LEO). A short duration roundtrip mission to Mars with a 30-day Mars landing would require about 600 days of deep space travel using current technologies and a 550-day landing would increase the mission’s duration to about 900 days.

SpaceX’s Mars architecture proposes shortening mission duration times by launching its “Starship” into LEO then boosting six BFR (“Super Heavy”) rockets carrying rocket propellent to its location to fuel it for an accelerated Mars journey. This approach could in principle achieve transit times tolerable by humans, but with current technology it is cost prohibitive and we do not have systems in place to achieve the goal. The solar electric propulsion systems NASA is developing provide extended thrust duration, but do not yield the exhaust velocity needed to lift mission systems from Earth or reduce the travel time to Mars.

These observations suggest that sustainable human expeditions to Mars are unlikely “as long as the laws of physics we have today are accurate and valid” or until new propulsion systems are developed that can lift significantly more mass beyond LEO with less fuel and transport humans to other planets significantly faster.

They do not, however, proscribe sustainable human expeditions to the Moon. Humans can travel to the Moon in less than three days using current propulsion systems. Equipment and resources can also be prepositioned on its surface at a fraction of the time and cost a Mars journey would require. Moreover, missions to the Moon do not introduce the communication delays that would plague a Mars mission because of the time it takes signals (light) to travel between the Red Planet and Earth; have a higher probability of success; and would allow real opportunities for astronaut rescue. In contrast, the chances of humans arriving safely on Mars is about 50 percent. Chances of self-rescue, since no rescue from Earth is feasible, are almost zero, and the missions would have a very narrow abort window after launch.

NASA spending is quite telling, especially when read from a general systems perspective, which begins with the thesis, “the purpose of a thing is what it does.” The numbers connote steady commitment and real work. They do not, however, add up to a human expedition to Mars, and most likely imply NASA planners are aware of the extraordinary challenges immanent to such missions. The organization’s amended 2020 budget is roughly $22.9 billion. The amount funds eight programs: Deep Space Exploration Systems ($6.67 billion), Exploration Technology ($1.15 billion), LEO and Spaceflight Operations ($4.29 billion), Science ($6.39 billion), Aeronautics ($667 million), Safety, Security, and Mission Services ($3.08 billion), Construction and Environmental Compliance Restoration ($600 million), and Inspector General ($41.7 million).

Approximately 29 percent of the budget is allocated to Deep Space Exploration Systems. About 15 percent of that number is accelerating the development of commercial human lunar landing systems and over 61 percent is paying for the final development and testing of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, legacy systems from the cancelled Constellation program. These two systems, designed to transport humans to the Moon, have been in development since 2005, are over three years behind schedule, and have exceeded their original budgets by about $2 billion. Neither system is designed to independently or jointly transport humans to Mars, although both can support the endeavor.

Exploration Technology accounts for about five percent of NASA’s 2020 budget. It is designing systems to support lunar landings and spaceflight orbits around the Moon. LEO and Spaceflight Operations account for about 19 percent of NASA’s budget. It is funding the International Space Station (ISS), including space transportation to the facility, and the commercial development of LEO markets, which, as of 2019, were valued around $400 billion.

Nearly 28 percent of NASA’s budget is allocated to Science, which comprises five projects: Earth Science, Planetary Science, Astrophysics, Heliophysics, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Earth Science is funding atmospheric, topographic and vegetative studies, as well CubeSats and SmallSats. Planetary Science is funding a 2020 rover landing on Mars, the reconnaissance of Europa, asteroids orbiting Jupiter, and a unique metal asteroid orbiting the Sun, the development of a lunar commercial exploration program, and a planetary defense system against asteroids. Astrophysics is funding exoplanet reconnaissance and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Heliophysics is funding almost a dozen probes around the Sun. The JWST will succeed the HST.

None of these programs are taking humans to Mars. Instead, they are incrementally freeing Americans to extend human civilization into space. They are methodically liberating humankind to establish a sustainable presence in lunar orbit or on the Moon’s surface. They are systematically augmenting our understanding of the cosmos through a rigorous collection of new data about planets, the Sun, and the universe. They are judiciously growing the economic and commercial productivity of LEO markets. They are prudently striving to realize, as President Trump notes in his Address, America’s “manifest destiny” among the stars. These are the things NASA is doing. They, and not a human mission to Mars, constitute NASA’s purpose.


Dr. Joaquin Trujillo is CEO of Authenticity LLC, from where he delivers consulting services to tier one corporate and government clients. He is a former National Clandestine Service (NCS) Operations Officer of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and holds a PhD in Sociology. His scientific work includes research on human dimensions of long duration space expeditions and is regularly published in refereed journals.

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