By Robert Bullard
Graduate Student, Professional Science Master’s Program, Rice University
The United States has traditionally been seen as the preeminent space-faring nation, especially after the Apollo missions successfully landed the first men on the Moon. However, if the United States seeks to successfully send humans to Mars, a critical precursor is developing the capabilities to sustain human activities on the Moon for significant periods of time. This requires allowing NASA to develop its long-term strategies without Congress micromanaging their budget each year. The Congressional bill — National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2020 —allows NASA to proceed with its new Moon and Mars program, but it also restricts the funding of needed research for sustainable space exploration, which is vital for the long-term mission of the agency.
An important area of space technology research is in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) — the practice of using of local resources on other planetary bodies rather than transporting them from Earth. For example, the International Space Station (ISS) uses an in-situ resource, sunlight, to generate electrical power from solar panels. Related to the Mars and Moon missions, another key local resource is water. There is evidence supporting the existence of ice on the Moon and on Mars. Not only is water a crew consumable, it is also convertible into hydrogen and oxygen, elements that could be used to create a powerful rocket propellant. NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program recently funded two projects to study the extraction of lunar water. In addition, oxygen can be generated from regolith (aka extraterrestrial dirt). In 2021, a new Mars rover named Perseverance will conduct an experiment demonstrating a way that future explorers might produce breathable oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere. These innovative technologies could even be used at home, for example, with carbon capture to mitigate the effects of climate change. These resources should be explored on the Moon before traveling all the way to Mars.
However, the current NASA authorization bill, HR 5666 introduced by Representative Kendra Horn (D-OK-5), sets unreasonable restrictions on funding and limits ISRU. As an authorization bill, this legislation does not appropriate funds. Instead, it sets terms and conditions on the activities NASA can and cannot pursue and specifies how appropriated funds are to be used. The core elements of the bill establish a “Moon to Mars” program, consisting of a crewed lunar landing by 2028 and a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2033. Unfortunately, the bill also distinguishes critical enabling activities from noncritical path activities, and activities under each category are to be separately budgeted from one another. It hinders NASA’s sustainable exploration architecture by explicitly prohibiting funding for ISRU research and development (R&D) and by failing to provide any alternative means of financial support. According to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, “the bill’s approach to developing a human lander system as fully government-owned and directed would be ineffective… and [would] inhibit our ability to develop a flexible architecture that takes advantage of the full array of national capabilities — government and private sector — to accomplish national goals.”
Through the Artemis program, NASA plans to use new technology to study the Moon and to prepare for human missions to Mars. The program should be funded, but Congress should also authorize NASA to continue developing a sustainable approach to solar system exploration as the agency sees fit, ensuring the R&D of important ISRU technology. Congress has already enacted the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015, which grants U.S. entities the property rights to asteroid resources they obtain in space. Following President Trump’s Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources, NASA has now created the Artemis Accords, a series of bilateral agreements between NASA and international space agencies wishing to join the Artemis program. The eighth accord notably states, “The ability to extract and utilize resources on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids will be critical to support safe and sustainable space exploration and development.” If the U.S. does not authorize investments in R&D for a sustainable human space exploration program, the nations that do will receive the accompanying diplomatic, technological and economic benefits.
This blog post is part of the Baker Institute Science and Technology Policy Program’s Developing Civic Scientist Leaders project.