President Obama’s vision to send Americans to Mars is underfunded and unsustainable, expert says

In an opinion piece on Tuesday (Oct. 11), President Barack Obama outlined his vision to send Americans to Mars by the 2030s.

However, noting a lack of proper funding, research and international collaboration, University of Notre Dame professor of civil and environmental engineering and earth sciences Clive Neal disagrees that Obama’s goal is achievable.

“President Obama has laid out a bold vision for the nation to ‘send humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.’ Like President Kennedy, this vision challenges our nation to reach beyond what has been done before. However, like President Kennedy no thought has been given to the sustainability of Martian exploration and eventual human settlement of the red planet.

“America does not have the budget to achieve the vision on our own. Indeed, it would appear that NASA has once again been given an unfunded mandate. In President Obama’s speech at Kennedy Space Center in 2010 where he stated that we don’t need to go back to the moon because we’ve been there before, he said NASA’s budget would be increased by $6 billion over five years. As of 2016, the increase is $264 million.

“Our international partners are focused on getting humans back to the moon and exploiting the resources of the moon to support sustained human presence there, and also to use those resources to send humans further into the solar system. Without the moon, we have to bring everything with us from Earth on the initial visit to Mars. That will require a budget far in excess of what we have now; that will not be sustainable. By working with our international partners to define and utilize lunar resources, we can bring the moon into our economic sphere of influence and create high-tech jobs, and by establishing refueling depots in cis-lunar space, human exploration to Mars becomes sustainable.

“Apollo was great, but we need to learn from it — Apollo was not sustainable. Let’s not make the same mistake with the exploration of the red planet.”

Neal has received NASA funding to conduct research using lunar samples to understand the origin and evolution of the moon. He devised and tested a new method for distinguishing impact melts from true magmatic lavas on the moon, and investigated the origin of some of the oldest basalts returned from the lunar surface. He is also exploring several projects related to lunar resources, including their use to enable exploration of the Moon and solar system, prospecting technology to determine whether the resources seen from orbit are in fact reserves, and examining the crystal stratigraphy of lunar samples to define isotopic variation.