HOUSTON - U.S. policymakers and others passionate about a human Mars landing are delusional if they believe the nation that ended its first foray into deep space with the Apollo moon landings is on a calculated path to the Red Planet, according to former administrator Mike Griffin.
Current efforts, focused on’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) as a springboard, are fizzling because the U.S. is not the "spacefaring" nation most assume, he told the 17th Mars Society conference in League City, Texas, as part of an Aug. 9 session on exploration.
"There are reasons other than technical why that has not happened. It isn’t about the money," Griffin told the conference organized around Mars Direct, the society’s strategy for establishing a sustained human presence on Mars without intermediate destinations by using current technologies and extracting fuel, life support and construction materials from the planet’s atmosphere and soil.
"The answer is because we are not a spacefaring nation," Griffin asserted. "The bottom line, for me, is that we have better stuff in museums than we have in operations today. I can’t think of another technical discipline in which that statement would be true."
As administrator during former President George W. Bush’s second term, from 2005 through President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Griffin led the early implementation of the Constellation program, an initiative to establish a lunar base as the predicate for a long-term strategy of reaching Mars and destinations beyond with humans.
The strategy was quickly dismantled by the Obama administration, which cited a lack of funding and schedule delays. ARM, however, is rapidly becoming the focus of similar concerns, raised most recently by the National Research Council but also by congressional auditors and the agency’s own inspector general.
ARM’s goals include the robotic capture of a small asteroid or a large, boulder-sized piece of an asteroid that can be steered into a stable orbit around the Moon to demonstrate solar electric propulsion. The new cislunar address would permit U.S. astronauts to visit the object by the mid-2020s using the Orion crew capsule and Space Launch System hardware that NASA considers key to reaching Mars in the mid-2030s.
If the U.S. was truly spacefaring, Mars would already have a human presence, Griffin said. He characterized the enterprise as requiring commitments much deeper than those advanced by presidential administrations and Washington legislators.
"When it matters to us as a society, it will happen," he said. "This means that as a society we believe that being on the space frontier — second to none — will bring benefits to future generations."
This includes U.S. influence on a range of global matters as well as new discoveries and economic opportunity, he suggested.
The U.S. retreat from deep space after Apollo was akin to the U.S. Navy deploying just a single aircraft carrier, according to Griffin.
"The technology of our time, if we put it back together, would take us back to the Moon. With a little more effort, the technology of our time will take us to Mars," he said. "The technology of some future time will inevitably cover the Solar System with human beings. The question is what language will they speak, what culture will they share and what morals and values will they propagate."